These European elections pose a greater challenge to the Brussels establishment than Brexit

These European elections pose a greater challenge to the Brussels establishment than Brexit

All eyes in Europe are on this week’s elections to the European Parliament, surprisingly (and shockingly) enough still also including the UK – where the Brexit Party now finds itself at 35% in the polls, followed not by Labour (15%) or the Conservatives (9%), but the Liberal Democrats at 16%. But while you Brits may well see the European elections as a vote on whether or not Brexit was the right decision – with the MEPs elected not present in Brussels for very long, we presume – for other Europeans, the elections present more of a vote on the future of the European Union itself.

Dubbed by the media as the “battle for Europe” – a slight overdramatisation – the elections will nonetheless provide a sign of where the EU will head in future years. Will it pursue the path of “ever closer union” or revert back to less integration? Or will it continue to follow the path it has in recent years (and decades): the one of a little more integration, but not too much; the one of compromise, which often ends up in half-baked solutions that maybe would have been better not pursued in the first place (like the euro, for example)?

While many might hope for clarity, it is highly unlikely that the election results will show any clear winner, as the European Parliament is set to see a drastic fragmentation. The “Grand Coalition” between the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – both of which are staunchly pro-EU and have ruled EU politics together for decades – will most likely lose its majority. Politico predicts that the EPP will lose 48 seats and the S&D 49 seats, meaning that the projected haul of 315 seats shared by these two mainstream establishment groups would leave them well short of a majority in the 751-seat parliament.

They will thus need help in order both to stay in power and also to decide who will succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, whether that be Manfred Weber from the EPP or Frans Timmermans from the S&D (or someone else entirely). This help might come from the Greens (with a projected 54 seats) or Emmanuel Macron, whose En Marche will most likely team up with Guy Verhofstadt’s ALDE (expected to come in at 104 seats) and could be the kingmaker in any attempt to achieve a majority.

The biggest question, of course, is how well the variety of parties – both savoury and unsavoury – on the right of the political spectrum will do. Over 250 seats could go to parties and movements sceptical of the EU in its current form (although the number will decrease when the UK leaves), which would be a major jump for the so-called “right-wing populists”. Whether those 250 MEPs could come together in a single group – which would be the biggest in the parliament – remains to be seen although, frankly, it is very doubtful. In their currently fragmented form, it is unlikely they will wield much power or say over decision-making processes.

It is clear, however, that a strong showing from these parties will cement “populist” forces as an established part of European politics. With a group of heads of state in the Council around Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán, they will, I predict, play a major role in the years to come. So how will the establishment parties respond to these new and emboldened adversaries? Will they nonetheless continue to argue for more EU and thus alienate even more Europeans? Or will they be ready to change and to reform the European Union to build a more decentralised, democratic, and free Europe?

The Brexit vote of 2016 should have sparked such a change. Instead, europhiles doubled down on their ideas. Will they now use the second chance they will be afforded by a strong showing of eurosceptics later this week to have a rethink? It will be fascinating to see how they react in the coming weeks and months.