A person throws a ballot paper into a ballot box behind which a European flag is pinned against the wall.

Why this year's European elections are so important

From June 6 to 9, all eligible voters in the European Union are called upon to elect a new European Parliament. Our Europe expert Malte Zabel explains why this year's European elections are especially crucial for the future of the continent and which challenges EU policy makers will most likely face over the next five years.

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Foto Malte Tim Zabel
Dr. Malte Tim Zabel


It’s almost become rote. Every five years we pro-Europeans say, "These European elections are the most important ever." For the record: A few months before the European elections in 2009, Lehman Brothers had gone bankrupt and a serious financial crisis hit first the United States, then the Old World. Having a united European Union seemed more important than ever for lending support to the wobbling banking sector. By 2014, the global financial crisis had long since morphed into a European sovereign-debt crisis, which had led to polarization and rifts within the EU itself. It therefore seemed all the more important for the EP elections to send a signal of European unity (which did not really happen). More recently, in 2019, Donald Trump had been US president for two years, the British had voted for Brexit, the "refugee crisis" had reached its peak and it was becoming increasingly clear that the EU had a problem upholding the rule of law within its own ranks. Yet again, according to the tenor of the times, the imminent European elections were the most important ever for countering centrifugal forces in a critical phase of the EU's development. Maintaining that the upcoming elections for the European Parliament are particularly important is therefore nothing new. Yet it’s true. Once again. This time, especially so.    

Why? Let's take a look at where the EU stands today. The situation is serious. It was serious five years ago, but this time more is at stake. The EU is possibly in the most decisive phase of its 70-year history. The number and severity of the crises, challenges and upheavals it is facing all at once are unparalleled. Taken together, they have the potential to dislodge elementary pillars of the European order. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made brutally clear that Europe's security and defense must be reconsidered from scratch. The EU must invest massively, both militarily and economically, if it is to reduce its critical dependencies. This is all the more true given that the future of its transatlantic relations is uncertain and that China is becoming an increasingly obvious systemic rival. In addition, the fight against climate change is requiring more effort than we have been previously prepared to accept. At the same time, we have considerable catching up to do when it comes to digital transformation, which, together with the pivot towards greater sustainability, will enormously change the European economic order. What is on the line here is nothing less than our future competitiveness and Europe's economic cohesion. The report on the Single Market recently published by former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta shows how great the need for action truly is. 

All this on its own could be considered epoch-making. Yet the EU continues to shoulder burdens from the past. Several crises and problems we were discussing in 2009, 2014 and 2019 are still not adequately resolved. The eurozone is still not sufficiently crisis-proof, and the banking union and capital markets union remain incomplete. The latest compromise on asylum reform is probably not adequate for providing a long-term solution. Relations with the UK, which are becoming more important in this geopolitical age, are not being constructively managed. Last but not least, parts of the EU's system of governance are simply no longer up to addressing all these challenges effectively. 

For example, relinquishing the principle of unanimity in foreign and security policy is no longer the dream of European federalists, but a political necessity. The same is true for enforcing the rule of law, which must serve as a non-negotiable nucleus of the EU's internal order. Both – an enforceable strengthening of rule of law and the expansion of majority decisions – are central pillars of a long overdue reform, along with a more flexible approach to cooperation ("coalitions of the willing"). This applies all the more if the EU, for good reason, wants to seriously push ahead with its enlargement in the next legislative period to include the Western Balkan states, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia and, hopefully, Ukraine. A report by independent French and German experts from last September made a very clear case for this link between enlargement and reform – and was fortunately heard at last year's European Council in Granada. But how long will it be before this insight reaches its expiration date, and how likely will it be to garner majority support in the coming legislative period? Will the EU really have the wherewithal in the next five years to tackle all the challenges and reforms on which its fate depends?

A rightward shift changes the dynamics of political action

Which brings us back to the European elections. According to all the current polls, parties on the far right are expected to post gains, while social democratic, liberal and green parties are likely to lose ground. If the two right-wing camps European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) were to join forces – something Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has envisaged for quite some time – they could form the second largest parliamentary group. Some polls even suggest that, if they worked together in a structured manner, both groups could become the main parliamentary player. In view of past history, however, and the considerable differences of opinion that persist in Europe's right-wing party landscape, it's doubtful that such an alliance will actually be struck. Centrist groups are likely to retain an absolute majority. At the same time, there are no fixed coalitions in the European Parliament and little of what Germans would recognize from the Bundestag as toeing the party line. Therefore, the dynamics of parliamentary policy making will undoubtedly shift, making it more difficult to find political solutions. 

If right-wing populist voices become louder on core issues such as European migration policy, supporting Ukraine or implementing the Green Deal, it will increase the pressure on center-right parties. Against this background, the approach taken by the European People's Party, which has often voted with the social democrats and liberals in the current legislative term, will be of particular importance in the next. As the presumably strongest force in the coming European Parliament, will it move closer to the positions adopted by the far-right fringe, for example on immigration or climate issues? Could it seek options for forming majorities with partners other than the social democrats, liberals and greens – in particular, with ECR parties? Either development would qualitatively upgrade the significance of any quantitative gains made by the right-wing camp. 

Admittedly, the future of Europe does not depend on the European elections alone. The national elections scheduled for 2024 and over the next legislative period are at least as important. The presidential election in the US will also have far-reaching consequences for the EU.

Nevertheless, over the years, the European Parliament has become an important power player, one that is underestimated by many EU citizens. In almost all key areas, it is a legislative body equal to the governments of the member states and it will play a crucial role in shaping European policy for virtually all the challenges described above. It must confirm the new European Commission and its president, co-decide the EU's multi-year budget, approve all EU reforms and amendments to European treaties and, finally, agree to the accession of new members. The majority ratios in the European Parliament and its culture of debate will have an immediate impact on how united and agile the EU is in coming years. The more headwind there is to taking the steps required for integration and the more polarization emanating from the EP, the more difficult it will be in the future for Europe to fulfill its basic promise of peace, freedom and prosperity. 

It's always been like that. But this time it's especially true.