Blog post

Newsletter May 2023

Elections on the horizon

Recommended citation

Maillard, S. 2023. “Election on the horizon“, Blogpost, Paris: Jacques Delors Institute, 5 May.

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Fixing the dates of the European elections among the 27 Member States is like trying to agree on holidays in a staff meeting: everyone has their own agenda for sticking to one day rather than to another. With electoral traditions and public holidays specific to each country, the holding of the European elections still oscillates between late May and early June 2024. Whatever voting days are finally chosen, the European elections are about to take place in a year’s time.

What exactly is at stake behind the renewal of 705 MEPs for five years by direct universal suffrage and appointments to the highest posts in the Union? A year ahead and in these shifting times, it would be risky to answer. Political parties are looking for some strong idea and a head to lead their list. Some parties are weighing up the opportunity of joining forces or, on the contrary, intend to assert themselves on their own. The President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is evaluating the support she will receive before standing for re-election, as her own party in Germany is urging her to do. In France, the presidential party hopes to remobilise its pro-European base for the elections, which are likely to turn into a referendum on Macron. The star of the democratic event, the European Parliament, will make it a vote of confidence towards an institution plagued by the never-ending Qatargate scandal. Anyhow, Season 3 of the French TV series Parliament is ready for broadcast in September.

The pre-campaign has thus begun and the frame of the electoral debate is being defined. Several factors will shape it. First, obviously, the war in Ukraine and Europe’s defence. Depending on whether the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which is considered imminent, will have changed the situation on a frontline that has been bogged down for months, depending on whether a victory appears to be within reach, reconstruction about to start and European membership open to negotiation, the results of the elections will benefit parties that are intransigent on their anti-Putin Atlanticist line. If, on the other hand, the war drags on, the sanctions are slow to change its course – the 11th package is in preparation – and public opinion becomes weary of it, other parties will be able to exploit the conflict’s rotting.

Another driving factor is climate. An election campaign during a prolonged drought, as is currently the case in the Iberian Peninsula, an early heat wave or any other kind of natural disasters will leave a ballotprint, as will a surge in energy prices. European sovereignty will become an empty rhetoric without any proven capacity to act against global warming. The results of the Green Deal, whose adoption of legislation is accelerating, and new ambitions for ecological transition will be assessed in the light of climate change, which is showing its effects in an increasingly palpable way. But the radical nature of the remedies required may also cool-off some voters.

Linked to these debates, the economy, whether for “wartime” and/or to be decarbonised, will be another decisive factor in the election. Whether inflation (up to 7%in the Eurozone) persists or begins to fall, whether interest rates rise further – new ECB decision on May 4th – whether the indebtedness of certain countries, including France, is nearing the estimated threshold of sustainability, whether a banking crisis remains contained or not, the tone of the campaign and the electoral mood will be affected. Already the revision of the Stability Pact is reviving the divide between Paris and Berlin, along with “the frugals”, on the degree of the budgetary slope to be climbed.

Finally, the campaign will inevitably focus on the migration issue raised by the post-Covid rise in asylum applications (excluding from Ukraine), labour shortages and demographic ageing. Since the last European elections in 2019, the EU-27 have remained divided on this sensitive and complex issue, leaving the far right make the worst use of it.

This issue, like war, climate and the economy, could shift the dividing lines among European political parties. The most closely watched, at this stage before the elections, is the one between the EPP (right-wing) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which includes Giorgia Meloni’s party, Vox in Spain and the Polish PiS. Their potential alliance would divide the Christian Democrats and turn them away from their traditional allies. This underlines that what is at stake in these elections, reshuffling the balance of power, is not only the place won by each of the lists in the European Parliament but also their possible new combinations to form a majority. These first European elections without the UK will not matter on whether staying or leaving the EU but with up to whom to make it in the future.