What Political Project for the 2024 European Elections?

Thierry Chopin

12 mins - 22 de Enero de 2024, 07:00

The next European Parliament elections will be held in less than six months’ time in a very specific national, European, and international context: very strong pessimism about the socio-economic situation as a result of inflation and stagnation of activation that have led to the energy crisis; radicalisation of the political debate in a context of contestation of reforms in France; rise and normalisation of the radical and extreme right in many EU member states; risk of erosion of support for Ukraine invaded by Putin’s Russia and return of violence in the Middle East.

In this context, citizens are expressing greater interest in the upcoming European elections, even more than in 2019, which already saw an increase in voter turnout. This may be due to two reasons. Firstly, the effects of the recent crises: in particular, the pandemic and the impact of the geopolitical and energy crises. This can be seen, for example, in the results of the Parlemeter, which identifies the fight against poverty and social exclusion (36%) and public health (34%) as the top priority issues. More than a third of Europeans (37%) have difficulty paying their bills, either temporarily or most of the time. Secondly, a kind of “normalisation” of European political life: the European debate is no longer reduced to the division for or against the European Union. It is now more focused on the political project, even for the radical left and right, which shift their political priorities to the European level. This reflects the limits of a simplistic Eurosceptic stance in public opinion: the Rassemblement National, for example, has abandoned its opposition to the euro, which preoccupied public opinion. On the contrary, the radical parties are now proposing a Europe in their own image: focused on the fight against poverty for the radical left, on the fight against immigration for the radical right.

This indicates the direction that the debate in the upcoming European elections could take. It will undoubtedly focus more on the direction of European policies and the shortcomings exposed by successive crises. And radical parties will try to transfer the traditional division between opposition and government to the European level.

Moreover, the political balance has shifted.

At the national level, the political landscape is more fragmented. Political life in the member states is now characterised by a quadripartition. Since 2000, traditional parties (centre-left and centre-right) have lost seats in national parliaments, while radical and far-right parties and liberals have gained seats. Aggregated at the European level, the centre-left has remained stable since 2017 (at around 20%), while the centre-right continues to fall (to 27%), far from its highest levels (40% and 47% respectively in the early 2000s). The radical right and liberals stand at 17% and 18% respectively. The impact of these dynamics at the national level is that governments are more fragmented, and therefore, less cohesive. This makes it necessary to form coalition governments or weakened minority governments.

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The same dynamic can be observed at the European level. The political balance in the European Council has shifted away from the European People’s Party (Social Democrats 5, Renew 6, European People’s Party 10, European Conservatives and Reformists 2, but representing in % of the population 33%, 24%, 16%, and 23% respectively). Nevertheless, the EPP is likely to remain a key element in the future European Parliament. The question after June 2024 is the positioning of the EPP, which could become more unpredictable, potentially weakening the EU executive. For their part, the Social Democrats (S&D) and Renew have been the most aligned so far, while the EPP leans to the right (less aligned with the S&D) when the majority grand coalition (EPP, S&D, Renew) is not united, although it has been governing the European Parliament since 2019.

In this context, the dominant political message today is that conveyed by the conservative, radical and extreme right around the triptych of immigration, opposition to climate policies and identity. This message is based on the discourse of the “besieged citadel” and the exploitation of feelings of impoverishment and deteriorating living conditions. It views politics and economics as a zero-sum game that excludes sharing and solidarity with those identified as outside the national community (in particular, immigrants). This narrative is no longer part of an “exit” strategy (Europhobia), even if Gert Wilders’ discourse in the Netherlands calls for vigilance. His aim is to take a discourse that appeals at the national level to the EU level – as we have seen recently in the Netherlands, when the momentum seemed to have slowed down in Spain and Poland (despite the Law and Justice party’s victory in last October’s legislative elections) – and translate it into European policies. It is from this perspective that we can understand the ‘normalisation’ of the radical and extreme right: using the protest/anti-system vote but positioning itself as a credible governing party on the model of Giorgia Meloni in Italy.

Faced with this dominant discourse, there is a very real risk that moderate political forces will simply react, letting the radical and extreme right impose the terms of the debate.

What might an alternative project look like? An alternative discourse could be structured around four axes.

The first axis should highlight the instability of the world in which Europeans live and the idea that unity is strength in the face of threats. Symmetrically, Europe also shows its weaknesses when it is not united (as at the beginning of the pandemic and at the beginning of the energy crisis), exposing Europe to a deterioration of its living conditions and influence. It is also essential to affirm the need to bring Europe closer to the daily concerns of its citizens: to defend their security, their health, their purchasing power, their children’s education, and their lifestyle, and to help preserve local services. Of course, this “macro” message must be systematically illustrated with examples of the impact of the EU’s grassroots actions on citizens’ daily lives (even at the most local level) and anchored in very concrete issues and territory. See, for example, the map (albeit unfortunately incomplete) of projects financed by the European recovery plan. This can then be applied to the geopolitical dimension by reaffirming the argument of European sovereignty (as a complement to national sovereignty) to defend the common interests of Europeans in an unstable and conflictual world (the level of conflicts in the world is the highest since the Second World War). Finally, in this first area, it is necessary to develop a forward-looking discourse with policies that support: innovation and modernisation of the economy so that Europe is not just an ageing continent; European mobilisation to raise the level of education and training, an essential condition for increasing productivity, and, therefore, living standards.

The second axis that must be at the heart of this discourse is the need to demonstrate that responding together to the challenges we face means finding the means to reach agreement at European level. We must be clear that the forthcoming European elections will determine the conditions for forging policies at European level that respond to these challenges. It is essential to define the kind of Europe we want: a Europe capable of exercising its sovereignty in today’s world; capable of promoting its interests and values; capable of investing at European level. Recent years have shown what determined European action can achieve in concrete terms: protecting economic activity and jobs during the pandemic; mobilising to produce vaccines; reacting jointly to Russian aggression in our immediate neighbourhood; taking action in response to the energy crisis. But also, that this European action is still too limited, as shown by the inadequacy of European investment in the past, resulting in increased dependence, ageing infrastructures and the incoherence of national industrial policies, as we have seen in the field of energy. In this context, the choice is clear: either Europeans find common solutions to current and future global transformations (Russia’s aggressive policies; the formation of blocs around China and the United States; climate change; the development of artificial intelligence, etc.); or they remain passive, and this inaction puts them at risk, which is unacceptable. For example, in the context of the search for greater strategic autonomy and the fragmentation of international trade, it is essential to strengthen European value chains, including by promoting industrial (re)establishment in the poorest European regions, where the labour cost differential with the rest of the world is smaller, but which need investment to become more competitive and better integrated into the European productive fabric.

Thirdly, in this overall perspective, this political message should articulate three key issues: competitiveness and solidarity (economic and social dimension), security (geopolitical dimension), and identity (cultural dimension linked to the question of the European way of life). If we do not move in this direction, our citizens will continue to feel that the outside world and its threats are imposing themselves on them. We see here the importance of the emotional dimension, which is very strong, insofar as it is linked to a feeling of fear, impoverishment, and loss of influence in a world that seems out of control. If these fears are not addressed, they will be transformed into a feeling of powerlessness which will crystallise into a feeling of anger, of which the rise of populism and extremism is an important and obvious political expression. It is therefore a question of overcoming this feeling of powerlessness by providing answers to the fears of individual devaluation, collective devaluation, and identity, and by showing that the EU contributes, together with the Member States, to providing solutions when it provides joint responses based on solidarity. In this respect, we must highlight and make better use of our collective strength, both internally and externally, to respond to citizens’ expectations of the European institutions (democratic demand for the ability to take initiative and to do what the major powers are capable of doing). If we fail to do so, we will foster a great deal of frustration, not to say resentment, as a result of the difficulties in coming to terms with events. The joint purchase of vaccines during the pandemic and of gas in the face of the energy crisis aggravated by the war in Ukraine are examples that make it possible to link the external and global dimension with the local and even the more personal and concrete (vaccines, the price of petrol at the pump, etc.).

Finally, in addition to emergency responses to shocks and the resulting fears in public opinion, it is also essential to launch projects within the framework of a medium-and-long-term strategy, the results of which will enable Europe to assert itself as a sovereign power and its citizens to identify with a model of society that brings Europeans together around shared collective preferences. To achieve this, we need to build a new positive narrative. As Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet foresaw as early as 1950, concrete achievements remain the condition for the advent of de facto solidarity among member states. But this solidarity, much appreciated by Jacques Delors, will remain incomplete as long as it cannot be complemented by a common identification with the Union. Although they belong to different national traditions and histories, EU countries share common values, principles and interests that distinguish them from other countries and regions of the world, be they China, Russia or the United States. If the EU demonstrates that it is implementing decisions and policies in line with its principles, it will be better able to convince the French and Europeans of its usefulness and legitimacy in facing and overcoming the challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s world. These challenges require a more united, stronger, union of Europeans so that its model can be “competitive” in the global competition for models of political, economic, social and environmental organisation. This is the sine qua non for restoring Europeans’ self-confidence, pride, ambition and sense of freedom.
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