Some 400 million Europeans from 28 countries head to the polls from Thursday to Sunday to choose their representatives at the European Parliament for the next five years.
The elections have never been so hotly anticipated, with many predicting that this year’s ballot will mark a coming-of-age moment for the Euroskeptic far-right movement.
Europe’s traditional political powerhouses — the center-right European People’s Party and the center-left Socialists & Democrats — are set to lose some clout and face their strongest challenge yet from an array of populist, nationalist and far-right parties that are determined to claw back power from the EU for their own national governments.
But the latest Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the European Parliament found 61 percent of respondents say their country’s EU membership is a good thing — the highest level since the early 1990s.
A clash of values
The clash of basic values — between Europe growing more united or more divided — has put the continent at a historic political crossroads.
French President Emmanuel Macron, champion of the closer-integration camp, says the challenge at the polls this week is to “not cede to a coalition of destruction and disintegration” that will seek to dismantle the unity the EU has built up over the past six decades.
Facing off against Macron and Europe’s traditional parties are Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and a host of other populist, right-wing or far-right leaders who have vowed to fundamentally upend Europe’s political landscape.
Nationalist leaders from 11 EU nations stood together in Milan last weekend — a show of unity unthinkable in previous years from a group once considered to be on Europe’s political fringe. Salvini then declared “the extremists are in Brussels,” the home of EU institutions, for wanting to retain the status quo.
“We need to do everything that is right to free this country, this continent, from the illegal occupation organized by Brussels,” Salvini said.
Europe’s far-right and nationalist parties hope to emulate what President Donald Trump did in the 2016 U.S. election and what Brexiteers achieved in the UK referendum to leave the EU. That is to disrupt the powers that be, rail against what they see as an out-of-touch elite and warn against migrants massing at Europe’s borders ready to rob the continent of its jobs and culture.
For many among the EU’s half billion citizens, the memories of war have vanished and the EU’s role in helping to keep the peace for 75 years, a feat for which it won the Nobel Prize, is overlooked.
Yet Europe was body-slammed by the financial crisis a decade ago and struggled through a yearslong debt crisis that saw nations like Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus get bailouts and produced recessions that slashed the incomes of millions.
Europe’s high taxes, stagnant wages and gap between rich and poor are still a sore point, highlighted now by weekly protests by France’s yellow vest movement demanding more help for hard-pressed workers. EU nations have also not been able to forge a common approach to migration, fueling inter-bloc tensions, and its impotence in quickly containing a migrant influx in 2015 has propelled a surge of support for far-right and nationalist parties.
“There are a lot of people who fear that things potentially are moving in the wrong direction or already have moved in the wrong direction,” said Janis Emmanouilidis at the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels. “It is a mix of multiple insecurities which, at the end of the day, is pushing people toward those who are coming up with easy answers.”
A potent force
Since the first European Parliament election in 1979, the legislature has slowly changed from a toothless organization where over-the-hill politicians got cushy pre-retirement jobs to a potent force with real decision-making powers.
The EU at first primarily regulated farming but now sets international trade policy for all members and even monetary rules for the 19 nations who use the shared euro currency.
The legislature itself affects Europeans’ daily lives in thousands of ways: cutting smartphone roaming charges, imposing safety and health rules for industries ranging from chemicals and energy to autos and food, supporting farming, reforming copyright rules and protecting the environment.
There are no cross-border elections this week, just national polls in 28 nations. Each EU nation gets a number of seats in the EU parliament based on its population. Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta have the fewest seats with six each, while the EU’s most populous member, Germany, has 96 seats.
Up until now, EU elections were tepid affairs. Voter turnout slumped to just 42.6 percent in 2014 — but that could well change this year.
Which way forward?
The pro-EU side says increasing integration is essential for the EU to survive in a globalized world. Euroskeptics say it robs national identity whenever more decisions are made at EU headquarters in Brussels.
Yet even some mainstream conservatives can have a euroskeptic streak. Czech politician Jan Zahradil, lead candidate for the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists, is among those seeking to return more control to Europe’s national capitals.
“[We want] an EU that is scaled back, that is flexible, that is decentralized,” Zahradil said. “[An EU] that respects national governments and that cooperates with them, that doesn’t fight them, that doesn’t patronize them, that doesn’t lecture them.”
For the pro-EU side, in a world in which China, the US and Russia are all flexing their political and financial muscles, Macron urges voters to think about the strength and unity that comes from 28 smaller nations working together.
“If you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe. Unity makes strength,” Macron said.
Facebook took down nearly 80 pages spreading fake news or using tactics that appeared aimed at unfairly influencing the European Parliament vote, an NGO reported Wednesday.
The US-based Avaaz online activist group said it had alerted Facebook to more than 500 pages and accounts suspected of fuelling disinformation campaigns.
“Together, they were followed by 32 million people and generated 67 million ‘interactions’ (comments, likes, shares) in the last three months alone,” Avaaz said.
As a result, Facebook shut 77 pages and 230 accounts, mainly spreading inflammatory far-right fake news, in Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Poland, it said.
“Disinformation is being used to deceive people and stoke anger and distrust in our politics, and the concern is that we’ll see the impact in the European elections this week,” said Avaaz campaigner Christoph Schott.
Facebook and other social media have been under intense pressure to crack down on fake news ahead of the European Parliament vote, which opinion polls suggest could see far-right parties make significant gains.
The social networking giant has set up a multilingual team in Dublin to monitor for illicit or fake content and block any suspicious activities, such as fake accounts or spamming.
“Every day we block millions of fake accounts, and continue to deploy smarter technologies and better defenses. But we are in an arms race against sophisticated and dedicated adversaries that want to attempt to manipulate public debate,” Facebook said in a statement.
The campaigns have raised the specter of a surge in extreme nationalist and populist views, and no community is more concerned than the continent’s Jews.
Recent years have seen an increase in anti-Semitic speech and violence in many parts of the continent, with once taboo language sometimes creeping into mainstream politics.
Before World War II and the Holocaust, Europe counted more than nine million Jews. Today the community numbers fewer than two million, and its leaders fear more departures.
European Jews are urging their neighbors to vote for unity and to reject extremism when they go to the polls.
“We know… maybe better than anyone, what Europe was built on, after the Holocaust, after the horrors of the war,” Ariella Woitchik, director of European affairs at the European Jewish Congress (EJC), told AFP. “And we don’t consider that peace is a given thing.”
In January, EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova spoke out against anti-Semitism, warning: “When Jews have left Europe in the past, it has never been a good sign of the state of Europe.”
But Jews are once again considering leaving Europe, as many did before and after World War II.
Modern European parties, even those on the far right, rarely openly espouse anti-Semitic views, but the recent election campaign has had worrying undercurrents for the community. The tone of the debate in Europe has raised concerns, and community leaders have urged all to vote against the extremes.