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European Parliament election 2019: Is politics in Europe fragmenting?

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By Alice Tidey  & Vincent Coste
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage after casting his vote on May 23, 2019.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage after casting his vote on May 23, 2019.   -   Copyright  REUTERS/Hannah McKay   -  

About 550 lists are competing across the European Union for seats in the next parliament, as disillusioned voters look for change despite being overwhelmingly positive about the European project.

The country with the highest number of lists in the running is Germany, with 41, perhaps not surprising given that it sends the biggest delegation to the European Parliament with 96 MEPs.

Yet in the Czech Republic, which will send 21 lawmakers to Brussels after the election, 39 lists are in competition, higher than in France (34), Italy (18) and the UK (27) which have the highest number of MEPs after Germany.

The countries with the fewest lists battling it out are Austria and Malta with seven each.

For Susi Dennison, a foreign policy analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) thinktank, the high number of lists shows that "European politics seems to be much more characterised by this strong sense that the political system is broken"

"What we're seeing is that people are no longer kind of characterised so much by strict party loyalty but they're willing to try out different things because of the level of disillusionment with the political system," she added.

The EU paradox

A survey conducted in 14 EU member states released last week by the ECFR found that three-quarters of respondents believe that politics in their country, at the European level or both, is broken.

Pollsters predicted ahead of the elections — which kicked off on Thursday in the UK and the Netherlands and will conclude on Sunday — that far-right and anti-EU parties would fare particularly well.

Dennison expects that about a third of the next EU parliament will be composed of anti-European MEPs and counted at least 50 such parties that could form an alliance.

Quite the paradox, she highlighted, given that recent surveys have found that opinion about the EU is positive.

The latest Eurobarometer survey found for instance that 68% of respondents in the EU27 (the EU minus the UK) believe that their countries benefited from being part of the bloc. Another poll, from the Pew Research Center, concurred: 62% of people polled in 10 different member states have a favourable opinion of the EU.

But the ECFR found that in the 14 member states it polled bar Spain, most respondents believe that the EU will fall apart within the next two decades. Asked about how they feel about their future, fear, stress and then optimism were the most cited.

"What you're seeing is voters still seeing the worth of the European project, still seeing the importance of the European identity in a world where local communities are changing, (where) the impact of globalisation are making people feel uncertain, juxtaposed with the sense that nationalism and division within the EU is becoming a threat to the extent that the EU might not exist anymore," Dennison explained.

Issue-based coalitions

Anti-EU parties, she went on, are capitalising on the fear factor while at the same time recognising that voters don't hate the bloc and many which used to call for a referendum on their country's membership to the EU, have switched gear.

"Instead, they're talking about changing Europe and a Europe of common sense. But they're also pitching themselves as the party of change in that environment. They're building on the optimism part — the fact that there is a better future within a different Europe — and 'it's us that can offer you the solution to the fear and stress about the future'," Dennison added.

If projections prove true and the main groups in the parliament are weakened by an increased number of anti-EU MEPs, this could actually result in "a much more pragmatic" decision-making process as the right-wing European People's Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats Group (S&D) will have "to work in issue-based coalition to push decision through," according to the foreign policy analyst.

Mainstream parties may, therefore, have to work with non-mainstream groups.

"It is important after these elections for the mainstream parties to understand the diversity within the anti-European group and to look for areas where they can work together," she underlined.

Failure to do so, she warned, "would be very dangerous in the current political environment".