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The EU's future

Felix Steiner
Felix Steiner
May 25, 2019

Will the elections for the European Parliament really determine the future of the EU? DW's Felix Steiner urges voters to remain calm and exercise their constitutional rights.

Berlin March for Europe
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Those who travel across Germany these days will get the impression that the country has two faces: There are some regions that seem like they always do, the odd election campaign poster on display, but nothing more. In other regions, however, every lamppost is decorated with portraits of at least two smiling candidates. In addition, giant billboards have been installed on every village square and you won't be able to do your weekend shopping in the local supermarket without being cornered by a zealous election campaigner.

Nine of Germany's 16 states will see regional elections on Sunday, and the residents of Bremen will elect the new state parliament. In those regions, the campaigns are running in full force, with lavish use of posters and other materials, with candidates fighting for every single vote and every single mandate. 

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Despite all of the punditry about the importance of the European Parliament elections for the EU's future, Germany's political parties attach more importance to local councils in Saarland and Saxony than to the blocwide legislature. Above all, the current lackluster European election campaign is no match for all the extravagance that is traditionally evident in the run-up to federal elections in this country.

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Those are not really the best of prerequisites for improving the voter turnout of just under 48% during the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. By German standards, this turnout was embarrassingly low, but it was still 5% higher than the EU average. At a mere 13%, Slovakia and its voters marked a record low turnout at the time.

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Pollsters believe that things will be different this time. They have noted a distinctively higher mobilization of voters across the European Union and determined a fairly obvious reason for this: Members of the public are increasingly flocking to polling stations because they want to stop a massive swing toward nationalism.

The nationalist moment

DW's Felix Steiner

Almost every election in Germany during the past four years saw increased voter turnout, and nonetheless the far-right Alternative for Germany party usually achieved excellent results. In the old days, there was a rule of thumb: the higher the turnout, the lower the success at the fringes of the political spectrum. Today, however, it has to be acknowledged that the right-wing populists, in particular, win over many voters who had preferred to stay at home during previous elections.

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In any case, the results achieved by the nationalists will be the main topic on Sunday night. Will the incriminating Ibiza video that brought down Austria's governing coalition have an effect on the performance of kindred parties that goes beyond the country's borders? Or will nationalist parties win the 20%-25% EU-wide predicted by some pollsters? And what would that mean? Would it really spell the beginning of the end of the success story called European Union?

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No. It wouldn't be as simple as that, despite all the shock waves such a result would certainly send through the European Union. The main prerequisite, after all, would be that Europe's right-wing populists and nationalists sing from the same hymn sheet and establish a united parliamentary party in the European Parliament. At the moment, just three of their factions make up such a parliamentary party, the ENF. Nationalists everywhere, unite? The contradiction is evident here, and so the threat to the European Union emanating from its parliament is comparatively low. Every nationalist or right-wing populist government of a member state can cause considerably more damage via blockade tactics at any Council of Ministers or summit.

With respect to the legitimacy and future power of the European Parliament, the message must be: The biggest haters of democracy and of a united Europe are those who care about neither democracy nor Europe and show that by not even bothering to vote.

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