The election will determine the future direction of the European Union itself as it confronts the threat of nationalists and populists across the continent, and as the drawn-out Brexit process continues to dominate the political agenda.
While historically turnout has been relatively low, this year analysts say voters are much more engaged with the poll, which runs from May 23 to 26. As a result, Europe’s Parliament is expected to undergo a major shake-up.
Parliament’s largest groups, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) — who have long enjoyed a joint majority in Parliament — are expected to lose a number of seats with euroskeptic and populist movements tipped to make big gains this year.
“Euroskeptics and populists are going to grow exponentially this time,” she says. “You’re going to have a much more divided Parliament. It’s going to be more difficult to find compromises.”
According to Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the UK-based University of Kent, many European populists believe they will be able to influence Europe from the inside out.
However, Mortera-Martinez suggests that populists, nationalist and euroskeptic parties will ultimately struggle to work together “so their influence will diminish a lot because of the lack of coordination.”
In a fragmented Parliament, Europe’s Greens — on course for their best-ever showing — could find themselves wielding more power. With support for mainstream parties declining, the votes of their projected 57 or more MEPs may well be key to any moderate, pro-EU alliance.
The elections that weren’t supposed to involve the UK
“I think this whole Brexit uncertainty will not only have a role in the elections but also in the priorities of the next commission,” Mortera-Martinez says.
“Within the next five years the question of how to accommodate the UK — in, and out of Europe — is going to take up a lot of time for the leaders of the European Commission.”
It’s also an opportunity for remainers and leavers to express their frustrations, Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, also a senior research fellow at the CER, said in a statement.
“Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives, which had hoped to avoid holding these elections, are facing a drubbing at the hands of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party,” she noted, adding that parties pushing to prevent Brexit are “likely to perform well and keep up the pressure for another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.”
“If anything, these European elections will confirm that the UK remains as divided over Europe as ever,” Gostyńska-Jakubowska added.
While MEPs have previously struggled to communicate to voters what they actually do at the complex institution, Mortera-Martinez says Europeans are taking a greater interest in the elections this time around.
“Back in 2014 no one thought about the European Union much,” she says.
But this year “so many people actually know the elections are happening,” she says, “and that there is something at stake.”