Three questions for Mark Dawson on the 2019 European Parliament vote

Mark Dawson discusses what’s bringing Europeans together and what’s dividing them. 

In the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, we spoke with experts at the Hertie School about key issues for voters this year.  In this instalment of this series, Professor of European Law and Governance Mark Dawson discusses what makes these elections different from previous ones and where the main cleavages are across Europe.


What’s different this time around?

In 2009 we had the euro crisis and in 2014 we had the Greek crisis, so in a sense those European elections were about putting out a fire or managing something immediate.  In 2019, the European Union isn’t facing such an immediate emergency – although I do think it is actually in a very perilous condition. The issues now are strategic and long term.  Interestingly, if you look at the top priorities of voters at the domestic level, they are almost identical to those the next European Commission will face, which should give voters extra motivation to be engaged.  We’re having a common debate about similar things across countries and across political groupings, such as the focus on environment, security and immigration. In the last European elections unemployment and the economic crisis were common themes, so in a way the priorities of voters have been Europeanised.  People talk about the big cleavage between the populist parties and the mainstream parties. But that cleavage may be exaggerated. The centre right is mainly talking about security and strength in Europe, about Europe playing a greater role on the global stage, and about protecting Europe’s borders.  Actually the populist groupings are also talking about those themes, but in different terms using more exclusionary language. They’re more in favour of returning some of those powers to the nation states. The agenda is thus often shared between some of the major populist and non populist groupings. 

What’s dividing Europeans in this election and what happens if anti-EU parties win big?

I think free movement of people and labour is one big issue.  The mainstream parties are still in favour of free movement within the European area. They’re still committed to European states respecting the UN Refugee Conventions, whereas the populist parties really see Europe as a kind of fortress. They’re very much focussed on preventing migration particularly from majority Muslim countries outside of Europe. At the same time, the centre-left is not paying as much attention to its traditional focus on inequality.  If we think that the big challenge facing Europe is the rise of populist movements, of which Brexit is just one aspect, we can see that a key driver of this has been inequality.  Those who voted for Brexit, those who vote for populist parties, are also those who feel left behind by economic globalisation. And it’s not really that clear in this debate before the European elections how Europe can address that challenge.

If anti-EU parties win big, the next Commission will have difficulty advancing its legislative agenda.  One feature of the last parliament was that the Commission and the parliament agreed on their main priorities. Even that did not make the passage of new laws more efficient, because that parliament was even more fragmented than the previous one. The populist rise will mean the next parliament is even more fragmented, making it even harder to reach compromises, and to find majorities on particular proposals. While there is no real risk of populists gaining a majority in the European Parliament, there is a major risk of them becoming seriously disruptive and of it becoming much more difficult to advance some of the main agenda items the next Commission has on its plate.

What would be a good result for the European project?

I think a good result for the European Project would not simply be more of the same. The same risk that we see here in Germany, which is that you have two major parties fighting over an ever-declining share of the vote, is also a risk that you see at the European level.  We have two major groupings, their level of support is declining, and there isn’t really an incentive for them to put forward innovative ideas.  Yet, one of the advantages of this more pluralistic European Parliament, of different European groupings, is that we also might have a new generation of leaders.  We often hear about this in other places, like in the US, when the last congressional elections introduced a new generation into US politics.  Because new parties are emerging at the European level, including new pro-European parties, we also will hopefully have some kind of generational shift, a shift in terms of the availability of ideas. That would be something good: Europe needs regeneration at that level - new initiatives, new ways of going forward towards a more sustainable model of growth, trade and security. Maybe this election can provide some impetus.


More about Mark Dawson

  • Mark Dawson , Professor of European Law and Governance