Democracy cannot be taken for granted
That is, arguably, the key message from one of the EU’s key political leaders as the bloc enters into one of its critical periods.
Many may still be lounging on beaches around Europe but, for some EU leaders, all eyes are on one thing: next year’s elections to the European Parliament.
The elections to what is for many the EU’s only fully accountable institution are held every five years and the 2024 edition promises to be the most important yet.
Ahead of the massive EU-wide poll next Spring, the Parliament’s president Roberta Metsola spoke exclusively to this website about her hopes – and fears – for the elections along with the future of the EU itself.
The Italian Member of the European Parliament and its first woman president in over 20 years, declared, “Populism has shown us that we cannot take our core values of peace, democracy and solidarity for granted.”
The EU has been partly transfixed in recent years by the sight of so-called populist politicians and the attendant rise of what has become known as “populism” in European politics.
Of course, there was Brexit in the UK which led to one of the EU’s biggest and most powerful members exiting the bloc altogether.
The man many believe was the catalyst for that seismic event, Nigel Farage, remains a hugely popular figure, not least for the UK media, in Britain.
But there have been similar “populist” trends elsewhere.
Populist politicians have exploited public resentments about a range of issues, ranging from the economic crisis to immigration, and formed anti-European parties and movements.
The right unleashed a wave of populism and nationalist identity politics that threatened the very cohesion and future of the EU.
In Germany, the AfD was empowered and it has grown into the largest opposition party. Italy has seen a similar experience recently. In Hungary, Victor Orban based his re-election campaign partly on what has been seen as “anti EU rhetoric.”
Even so, fears of yet more electoral gains for “populist” parties have been put on hold, for now at least, after the recent Spanish election results.
Some in Spain feared the far right would return to government for the first time since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 but the Vox party shrank its share of seats in parliament following the national elections. It seems that the prospect of a radical right party entering government was a step too far for most voters, in a country where memories of fascist dictatorship are fresher than elsewhere in Europe.
But, nevertheless, questions still remain at the heart of the electoral landscape ahead of those 2024 EU elections:
- What strategies will be employed to motivate young people – particularly first-time voters – to actively participate in the electoral process?
- How will the voting choices of young generations impact the outcome of the elections?
- The horse-trading for top EU jobs following European Parliament elections often emerges as a trust issue, particularly among Europe’s youth. Can we anticipate a higher level of transparency in the leadership contest for the role of the European Commission President?
- To what extent can participatory and deliberative exercises, such as the Conference on the Future of Europe, rejuvenate representative democracies and exert influence on election campaigns?
In her interview, Metsola was asked about her expectations for the EU Parliamentary elections and also if she is concerned that the Far Right may, for the first time, get a real foot hold in the institution.
She said, “It is my responsibility to make sure that I get to as many people as possible who feel disenfranchised and ignored, who do not feel represented, who are today thinking “Where is Europe on the things that matter?”.
The 44-year-old says, “Increasing voter turnout is therefore my priority, and I will make sure that we reach every corner of Europe and that we explain the role of the European Parliament better. I hope that the positive trend observed in the voter turnout at the last European elections in 2019, will thus continue.”
Voter apathy had posed an existential threat to the European Parliament’s legitimacy, and reversing previously falling turnout at the last elections, in 2019, was seen as a tremendous success story for the EU.
This was partly due to a brand new approach to institutional communication by the assembly, one that was less focused on the core business of the European Parliament and more directed at boosting all imported public trust in the institution during a time of crisis.
Metsola, a Maltese national who took up office as president in January 2022, outlined how she plans to broaden the popularity of the Parliament even more in the coming months, saying, “When visiting all the EU Member States, my goal is to show the values that underpin our work at the Parliament.
“I want citizens to be aware of the fact that our Parliament delivers, but it can only do so if there is a clear majority that stays away from extremisms of populist derivations, a majority anchored in the European centre,” said the MEP, a member of the centre right European People’s Party,
Aside from making sure that peace, democracy and solidarity are not taken for granted, she also affirms the EU “cannot ignore people feeling distant, as failing to address people’s fears will only lead to increased polarisation.”
One thing the Parliament has done recently is to seek approval to increase the number of seats by 11, to a total of 716, ahead of the European elections in June 2024.
This, it says, is to reflect demographic changes in the EU since the 2019 elections. Spain and the Netherlands each get another 2 seats while another one seat goes each of Austria,Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Ireland, Slovenia and Latvia.
Sandro Gozi, a French MEP from the Renew Group, says this is “an important step towards a fairer Europe”, adding, “Parliament’s composition goes hand in hand with the new European electoral law. Both are key to achieving elections in 2024 that are both more European and more representative.”
For now, fears of a new right-wing alliance of countries in the Council, the Brussels based body representing the 27-strong bloc, has receded.
But, with geo-politics moving at a bewildering speed, do not be surprised for the next crisis to pop up any time soon and, with it, fresh fears in the EU “family” of a boom for the populist movement.