The May European elections take place amid growing support for an alternative vision of the European Union based on national sovereignty and a halt, if not a reversal, to integration as pursued so far. 15 years on from when they joined, governments in Central and Eastern Europe, with powerful allies across the continent, have been the standard bearers for this position in recent years, often marrying it to conservative values and xenophobia. Yet despite the dangers, from contestation over the EU’s role could come positive renewal. As part of the Green European Journal’s series zooming out from electoral politics to ask where Europe finds itself, Adam Reichardt, editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe, analyses how the impulses for change will affect an EU split in more ways than one. In its relations with its neighbours as much for the EU’s own evolution, he argues that opportunities are there to be seized if the institutions can listen and adapt.

There is no doubt that the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament will not only be pivotal in shaping the Parliament and the next European Commission, but more importantly will be a reflection of the current state of Europe as we head towards the third decade of the 21st century. The EU faces immense challenges, both internal and external. Yet, if Brussels is able to recognise its own faults and breakdown existing divisions on all levels, these elections may be a positive turning point in the history of the European Union.

From the perspective of the newer EU members from Central and Eastern Europe, these elections will be a chance for parties in power – many of which are populistic and semi-Eurosceptic – both to consolidate their rule at home and to increase their say on Europe-wide issues. In fact, these European Parliament elections will likely be the first time in the EU’s history that a strong, pan-Eurosceptic movement will emerge. This coalition, spanning parties from the East and West, will be in a position to question the pace of integration and even to limit the role of Brussels in individual member states.

Buoyed by success at the polls, populist forces currently in power will be able to further their narratives of national sovereignty and, in some cases, continue to chip away at values that have defined the European Union for over 30 years, such as an open society and the rule of law. Without a doubt, the EU will face an even greater existential challenge than it currently does.

How should Europeans interpret these developments? Ivan Krastev argues in his book After Europe [read more on After Europe] that this could be the beginning of the end of the European project. His main thesis is that Europe will not disintegrate from the periphery but rather from the core. If the new pan-European movement of Eurosceptics manages to muster a significant amount of influence not only in their home countries but in Brussels as well, Krastev’s premonitions may come to fruition.

the challenge will be how the EU can become more innovative and support a trans-European public space, which is seriously lacking today

On the other hand, it could speak to the evolution of the European project. The countries which joined the EU 15 years ago will wield greater influence than ever before. Their economies are strong and their political institutions relatively stable, despite some backsliding in countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Poland. These countries can contribute to Europe-wide initiatives, such as the Eastern Partnership and engagement with the Western Balkans, and even come up with new, bold ideas, as seen in the Three Seas Initiative.

In what might seem to be a paradox, enthusiasm for the European Union in these countries remains rather high, often more so than in the older members. A March 2019 research survey found that Polish and Hungarian society is strongly supportive of the EU. 72 per cent of Polish people have a favourable view of the EU. This opportunity should not be missed in the post-election period. Finding ways to capitalise on these attitudes to put forward a comprehensive EU agenda should be a priority for the next Parliament and Commission in order to neutralise the effects of pan-Euroscepticism.

Of course, the rise of far-right populism, fuelled by anti-European rhetoric and often helped along by online disinformation campaigns, is a major concern when thinking about the future of Europe. Brexit (should it ever go through) will also influence social attitudes elsewhere in the EU, particularly similar trends such as Czexit in Central and Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic is arguably the most Eurosceptic society of the newer members countries.

The future Commission will be tasked with the delicate duty of handling Brexit at the same time as being more assertive with states that break EU values and finding new ways to engage these countries and their societies. Hence, the challenge will be to address the real concerns of Europeans that have led to the rise of Euroscepticism and support for populist forces.

The first step towards progress in this regard can come from a change in mindset, moving beyond the old rhetoric of an East-West divide and dispelling the myth that these countries were not ready to join the EU 15 years ago. As Jan Zielonka recently wrote: “Europe is a complicated maze with many fault lines, not one single fault line between the East and the West.” The issues that face Europeans throughout the EU are country specific, yet many do cross state borders and touch all Europeans. Many EU citizens, particularly in the East, feel that Brussels is distant and out of touch with their daily lives. Turnout in the European Parliament elections will be an indicator of this sentiment. In 2014 European elections, Slovakia had the lowest turnout with just 13 per cent, while the Czech Republic had 18 per cent.

With new members will come new opportunities, new ideas, and the chance for Europe to pursue its future path.

That is why the EU needs to find new mechanisms to reconnect directly with Europeans in all the member states. Anti-European attitudes often fill the gap where there is a lack of Europe. Hence the challenge will be how the EU can become more innovative and support a trans-European public space, which is seriously lacking today, in order to create a more equal dialogue across Europe and among Europeans.

Keeping Europe’s doors open to new members should also be a priority for the Commission following the elections. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership programme – a policy that aims to enhance integration with six former-Soviet states. It has had some successes but also many disappointments. The new Commission should take advantage of this moment to develop the EU’s neighbourhood policy – in particular in relation to its Eastern and South-Eastern neighbours. Much progress has been made in many of these countries – North Macedonia stands out in particular. Should they meet the requirements of membership, the prospect of accession should be openly discussed. Here lies an opportunity to let countries which have already undergone the transformation process and support greater integration with Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans lead the way. Not only will it demonstrate that the European project remains attractive, but it can also provide new internal optimism. With new members will come new opportunities, new ideas, and the chance for Europe to pursue its future path.

Certainly the challenges and questions that lie ahead for the EU post-elections are many and complicated. They range from internal political issues to external threats and geopolitical shifts. However, if Brussels can break out of its bubble, recognise that it can evolve, and overcome the old divisions to become more democratic, then these elections may be a turning point for a renewed and stronger Union.

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