Polls open in 20 EU countries to elect new European Parliament

The election will shape how the European bloc confronts challenges including a hostile Russia, increased industrial rivalry with China and the United States, climate change and immigration.

A woman votes at a polling station, during the European Union's parliamentary elections, in Athens, Greece, June 9, 2024. REUTERS/Louiza Vradi
A woman votes at a polling station, during the European Union's parliamentary elections, in Athens, Greece [Louiza Vradi/Reuters]

Voters across 20 European Union countries have started picking the bloc’s next parliament amid concern that a likely shift to the political right will undermine the ability of the world’s biggest trading bloc to take decisions as war rages in Ukraine and anti-migrant sentiment mounts.

The election began on Thursday in the Netherlands and in other countries on Friday and Saturday, but the bulk of EU votes are being cast on Sunday, with France, Germany, Poland and Spain opening the polls and Italy holding a second day of voting to elect 720 members of the European Parliament.

Seats in the assembly are allocated based on population, ranging from six in Malta and in Luxembourg to 96 in Germany.

The election will shape how the European bloc confronts challenges including a hostile Russia, increased industrial rivalry with China and the United States, climate change and immigration.

An unofficial exit poll on Thursday suggested that Geert Wilders’s anti-migrant hard right party should make important gains in the Netherlands, even though a coalition of pro-European parties has probably pushed it into second place.

Since the last EU election in 2019, populist or far-right parties now lead governments in three nations — Hungary, Slovakia and Italy — and are part of the ruling coalition in others, including Sweden, Finland and, soon, the Netherlands. Polls give the populists an advantage in France, Belgium, Austria and Italy.

The elections come at a testing time for voter confidence in a bloc of some 450 million people. Over the last five years, the EU has been shaken by the coronavirus pandemic, an economic slump and an energy crisis fueled by the war in Ukraine – the biggest land conflict in Europe since World War II.

The polls also mark the beginning of a period of uncertainty for the Europeans and their international partners. Beyond the wrangling to form political groups and establish alliances inside parliament, governments will compete to secure top EU jobs for their national officials.

Chief among them is the presidency of the powerful executive branch, the European Commission, which proposes laws and watches to ensure they are respected. The commission also controls the EU’s purse strings, manages trade and is Europe’s competition watchdog.

Other plum posts are those of the European Council president, who chairs summits of presidents and prime ministers, and EU foreign policy chief, the bloc’s top diplomat.

EU lawmakers have a say on legislation ranging from financial rules to climate or agriculture policy. They also approve the EU budget, which apart from funding the bloc’s political priorities bankrolls things like infrastructure projects, farm subsidies and aid delivered to Ukraine.

But despite their important role, political campaigning often focuses on issues of concern in individual countries rather than on broader European interests. Voters routinely use their ballots to protest the policies of their national governments.

Surveys suggest that mainstream and pro-European parties will retain their majority in parliament, but that the hard right, including parties led by politicians like Wilders or France’s Marine Le Pen, will eat into their share of seats.

The biggest political group – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – has already edged away from the middle ground, campaigning on traditional far-right issues like more security, tougher migration laws, and a focus on business over social welfare concerns.

Much may depend on whether the Brothers of Italy — the governing party of populist far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, which has neo-fascist roots — stays in the more hardline European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), or becomes part of a new hard-right group that could be created in the wake of the elections. Meloni also has the further option to work with the EPP.

The second-biggest group — the centre-left Socialists and Democrats — and the Greens refuse to align themselves with the ECR. A more dire scenario for pro-European parties would be if the ECR joins forces with Le Pen’s Identity and Democracy to consolidate hard-right influence.

Questions remain over what group Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s staunchly nationalist and anti-migrant Fidesz party might join. It was previously part of the EPP but was forced out in 2021 due to conflicts over its interests and values.

The EPP has campaigned for Ursula von der Leyen to be granted a second term as commission president but nothing guarantees that she will be returned even if they win. National leaders will decide who is nominated, even though the parliament must approve any nominee.

Source: News Agencies