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Could crisis force European-wide issues into EU election campaigns?

A man walks past campaign posters for the upcoming European elections in Hendaye, southwestern France, Wednesday, May 22, 2019.
A man walks past campaign posters for the upcoming European elections in Hendaye, southwestern France, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Copyright AP Photo/Bob Edme
Copyright AP Photo/Bob Edme
By Lauren Chadwick
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Since 2019, the European Union has faced multiple crises -- does that mean that EU-wide issues will dominate the 2024 European election campaigns?

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With the European elections one year away, EU political parties are already beginning to prepare their manifestos, kicking election preparations into gear.

But much has changed in the four years since the last European elections, with the institutions increasingly taking centre stage amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

“National policies always take precedence over European politics,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office at the Centre for European Reform, but she hopes that the EU reaction to crises over the last several years could fuel “more talk about Europe” this election cycle.

While MEPs have pushed for common election rules and transnational lists of candidates with a vote on reform measures last year, the issue hasn’t been taken up by the European Council and it's unlikely that there will be any big changes before 2024 that would help to give a more European identity to the elections.

The latest Eurobarometer data released on 6 June showed indeed that there is increased awareness of European elections and increased interest in them compared to 2018, with the figures now reaching 45% and 56% respectively.

In 2019, turnout increased by 8 points but it stood at just over half of the electorate

“The election campaigns are mainly going to take place within the national context of each member state,” said Johannes Greubel, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre. “But I think there will be a number of key issues that will be observable throughout the entire EU.”

Here's a look at what EU-wide topics could drive the discussions ahead of the 6-9 June 2024 elections.

Ukraine War’s influence on European elections

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year sparked a swift reaction from the European Union, which has supported Ukraine financially and imposed multiple sanctions packages on Russia.

The war, in addition to lingering headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic, lead to an energy crisis last winter as Russia cut its gas exports to the European Union.

The war also resulted in the acceleration of Ukraine’s membership application to the bloc, with the country becoming an official candidate to join the EU. 

Protestors hold signs and EU and Ukrainian flags during a demonstration in support of Ukraine outside of an EU summit in Brussels, 23 June 2022.
Protestors hold signs and EU and Ukrainian flags during a demonstration in support of Ukraine outside of an EU summit in Brussels, 23 June 2022.Olivier Matthys/AP Photo

“What will be interesting is to see how different political leaders will engage with these crises over the last year, for example, if you look at incumbent leaders that might be running for the elections, I think a lot of these leaders will make use of the role that they played during the crisis,” said Greubel.

“For example, if von der Leyen decides to run, I think she will be able to present or portray herself as a leader, a strong personality throughout these past crises, whether it was COVID-19 or now, the war in Ukraine.”

Mortera-Martinez points out that many European political parties do not differ in their view that the bloc should support Ukraine, and that there are other issues that will come to the fore - such as energy, EU enlargement, defence, and the extent of EU autonomy.

“My guess is that the question of defence and the question of how to defend Europe will be a prominent one in the campaign,” she said.

“But it won't necessarily change that much because most mainstream parties…have sort of the same opinion that Europe should become more invested on defence.”

Péter Krekó, the executive director of Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, said that the mainstream European political parties stand to benefit from greater trust in the European Union amid the war.

"We have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the state of affairs in the European Union and in the public opinion of the European Union for the reason that most of the polls...indicate that there is rather an increasing trust within the European Union," he said.

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Climate change likely to remain key topic during elections

Climate change will likely once again be an important part of discussions for politicians and parties at the European level during elections, analysts say.

The EU recently agreed on much of its large Fit for 55 package, but there will be lots of work to bring the bloc in line with the legislation’s objectives which aim to slash EU emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. 

Numerous wind turbines, including some from RWE's new Kaskasi offshore wind farm, can be seen during the commissioning of the wind farm off Helgoland, Germany
Numerous wind turbines, including some from RWE's new Kaskasi offshore wind farm, can be seen during the commissioning of the wind farm off Helgoland, GermanyChristian Charisius/Pool via AP

Ville Niinistö, a Green Party MEP from Finland, told Euronews that it’s important for his party to focus on green solutions for economics, jobs, and industry during the elections.

“The interesting thing is that we have more and more of the business community on our side, so we can actually also have a discussion with the moderate right (European People's Party) EPP parties on whether that they are actually losing the edge on where business is going because business is looking at the green solutions,” Niinistö said.

Climate change was a prominent issue in the 2019 elections and will also likely be discussed in the context of the EU’s recent energy crisis – with European leaders pushing for more autonomy over the bloc’s energy mix.

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The share of renewable energy in the EU was 22.2% in 2021, growing only modestly from 2020, according to the European Environment Agency.

“Meeting the recently proposed, new target of 40% would require a deep transformation of the European energy system,” the agency said in October of last year.

Will migration be a key topic discussed?

An EPP official told Euronews that in addition to the war in Ukraine and green transition, migration policy would be an important topic for parties to discuss during election campaigns.

The party recently said that building fences at external borders “should be eligible for EU funding” if necessary as several EU states called for funding for fences as part of border control.

"We need a system that gives us the instruments to stand up against the despicable behaviour of countries like Turkey and Belarus who are instrumentalising migration and use people for their own political games," said Jeroen Lenaers a Dutch MEP from the EPP in a statement in February.

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The European Commission has so far said they would not fund barbed wire or walls.

Migration across the Mediterranean has also been in the spotlight recently with Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni taking a hardline on immigration since her election last year.

In the Central Mediterranean, the first quarter of 2023 was the deadliest for migrants crossing the sea in six years.

Last month, the European Parliament approved three proposals on migration that could help to bring an agreement on the issue.

Mortera-Martinez said that EU countries will likely try to reach an agreement on migration ahead of the elections so that the topic doesn’t dominate the campaigns as well.

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Krekó, meanwhile, said that the topic will remain important in next year's elections, with the European People's Party president Manfred Weber kicking off "a hardliner EPP policy on migration."

Could parliament scandal influence the European elections?

The recent corruption scandal in the European Parliament could be less of a news item in a year’s time but its influence on rules in the parliament will be important to address during the elections, some argue.

“(MEPs) need to show in our work internally that we are very strict on making sure that there is no room for corruption and corruptive practices. So everything needs to be more transparent. There needs to be more ethical control within the parliament, and that is still a work in progress. So this needs to be finished before the election,” said Niinistö from the Greens.

Former European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili speaks during the European Book Prize award ceremony in Brussels, Dec. 7, 2022
Former European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili speaks during the European Book Prize award ceremony in Brussels, Dec. 7, 2022European Parliament via AP

Since the first arrests at the end of 2022, those involved in the parliament corruption scandal, including three sitting MEPs, have been released from prison.

The scandal's presence as a talking point during the elections will depend on if there are new updates and whether the parliament continues to make changes to ethics rules, analysts say.

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“If this scandal is not dealt with properly and even if it is, I think chances are high that populist parties will utilise the scandal and make use of this scandal to push for their policies, their Eurosceptic views,” said Greubel.

The latest Eurobarometer data did not show a change in EU citizens' perception of the European Parliament's image and role following the corruption scandal.

Fiscal rules and European integration

Other topics that may be discussed next year include Europe’s financial rules and its further integration on matters related to defence and health, but it could be a while before we see if those topics will galvanise European voters in the different member states to turn up at the polls.

For Krekó, it's Europe's mainstream parties that will likely be viewed as the most competent for handling high inflation.

"When it comes to solving economic problems, it might vary from country to country, but this is not typically the comfort zone of far-right parties that are usually mostly exploiting identity-related issues," he said.

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"I don't think that when it comes to energy security (or) when it comes to solving economic problems, the far right in general is regarded to be very competent," he added.

Inflation remains high in the eurozone but has been falling over the past few months with some economists stating that the outlook is optimistic.

Half of the respondents who took part in the latest Eurobarometer survey considered that their standard of living had been reduced, so inflation and cost of living will likely weigh on voters' minds.

But Krekó points out that a lot could change in a year's time.

"It's (about) one year to go, so as we did not expect the war (in Ukraine), as we did not expect COVID, there might be some unexpected developments in the next year," he said.

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Mortera-Martinez said she would be surprised if European Union policies are discussed in the elections more than national politics, but that it’s hard to predict given how much could change.

“National politics have always been very, very important when it comes to the European elections,” she said.

“But this time around, because of how important the European Union is in some aspects, I sort of hope that there will be some Europe (but) it all depends on what happens with the volatility in member states.”

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