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European elections: Are national issues overshadowing European ones?

European Parliament in Strasbourg
European Parliament in Strasbourg Copyright Jean-Francois Badias / AP Photo
Copyright Jean-Francois Badias / AP Photo
By Amandine Hess
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This article was originally published in French

Will voters really have the EU itself in mind when they cast their ballot at the European elections in June?

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The countdown to this year's EU parliament elections is well underway, but in many countries, the battle for votes seems to be being fought along national, not continental, lines.

The dynamic is especially strong in France, where some parties are framing the EU elections as a forerunner to the 2027 presidential race — or "first and foremost mid-term elections", in the words of Jordan Bardella, head of list for the far-right Rassemblement National party, who is calling to "sanction Macron's Europe".

"If I'm in the lead, I'll obviously ask for the National Assembly to be dissolved that very evening," Bardella said in an interview with French broadcaster RTL. Under the French Constitution, only the President of the Republic can take such a decision.

"The attempt and temptation (...) to use the European elections as 'mid-term elections', as they say in the United States, is strong," says Pascal Perrineau, professor emeritus at Sciences Po Paris and author of A Taste for Politics.

"People use them to vent their anger against those in power. Of course, the European far right plays this game a lot when it's not in power."

"In France, this is the only major election before the next presidential election in 2027," points out Éric Maurice, political analyst at the European Policy Centre. "It is a national list election, so there is a strong temptation to nationalise the ballot."

And based on studies of EU politics going back decades, this "nationalisation" of bloc-wide elections is hardly new.

Second fiddle

A year after the first European elections in 1979, researchers Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt described the ballot as a "second-order national election".

Perceived as being of little importance, the elections were being used by political forces to gauge their popularity at the national level, especially where they fell in the middle of a president or government's term. 

Researchers also described the European elections as "national" because they are organised at the national level, according to national rules, and pit national candidates against national candidates on national issues. The voting method, voting day, and the legal age for voting or standing also differ among member states.

"For the moment, there are only slight trends towards the 'Europeanisation' of voting trends," says Perrineau. "It's not massively obvious. They were somewhat visible during the last European elections in 2019, when there was a surge in voter turnout. We had the impression that more Europeans were interested in the European elections and in the power of the European Parliament."

Promoting the 2024 European Parliament elections in Strasbourg.
Promoting the 2024 European Parliament elections in Strasbourg.Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.

Recent crises involving the European Union, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the knock-on effects of Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, have put European action at the forefront of voters' minds.

But will this be enough to bring European issues front and centre come 9 June? According to Éric Maurice, the work of the European institutions is still too little known to the general public, and many electorates' attention is focused on their own elections.

Around ten national elections are being organised across the European Union in 2024. Several have already taken place, but in Belgium, federal and regional elections will be held on the same day as the European elections, on 9 June.

Presidential elections are due in Lithuania and Romania, while voters in Austria are expected to be called to the polls for legislative elections.

The European elections could also be an opportunity for parties in power or in opposition to gauge their popularity ahead of future elections, whether to see if they can cling on at their next national polls or to try and identify their best way back.

Country first

Ultimately, says Pascal, "Voters are more likely to vote for national, economic and social reasons – at the moment the rise in energy costs, the problems of inflation – than for European issues, be they European institutions, European policies or even the war in Ukraine."

In France, national issues take precedence over European issues for half of those polled, according to an Ipsos survey conducted for Le Monde, Cevipof, the Jean Jaurès Foundation and the Institut Montaigne.

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About 53% of those polled in France said they would take into account "the parties' proposals on national issues above all" to determine their choice of vote, while only 47% named European issues as their top concern.

Furthermore, 52% of those polled said that they would "vote first and foremost to show their support for or opposition to the President of the Republic or his government."

According to the study, the Europeanisation of concerns is socially divided.

"In certain circles, I'm thinking in particular of white-collar workers, executives and working people under 50, there is an awareness that Europe is more than something far away in Brussels or Strasbourg," explains Perrineau, who contributed to the study.

"On the other hand, in certain circles that are further removed from Europe - I'm thinking of blue-collar workers, white-collar employees, the unemployed (...) national concerns often take precedence over European concerns," he explains.

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And at the end of the day, European issues such as immigration, the Common Agricultural Policy and support for Ukraine also feature in national elections – proving that national and European issues are so intertwined that it is sometimes difficult to disentangle them.

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