The stars of the European Union (EU) sit on the glass facade of the European Parliament's Altiero Spinelli building in Brussels, Belgium, on Friday, May 3, 2019. The stakes are high for this year's elections to the European Parliament, with widespread predictions that a growing chorus of populists will see historic gains at the expense of establishment parties. Image Credit: Bloomberg

This week, the first full one of May sees the kick-off of the final leg of the landmark European Parliament election campaign. The May 23-26 ballot is assuming much bigger importance this year in what may, in effect, be a referendum on the six-decade integration project of the Brussels-based club.

And the election is not just important for the future of the continent, but also the rest of the world as the EU remains an economic superpower with its collective gross domestic product (GDP) paralleling that of the United States, and remaining larger than that of China. It is also the world’s biggest exporter with the scores of nations for which Europe is their leading trade partner — ranging from China in Asia to Brazil in South America.

One reason why this year’s election has added spice within Europe is the growing prospect that the United Kingdom will take part in the ballot. Some three years after the 2016 referendum, UK candidates will take part unless Theresa May can get her Brexit withdrawal deal passed soon.

The continuing impasse over Brexit is just one reason why Emmanuel Macron is depicting the contest as a choice for or against Europe. With anti-integration, Euro-sceptic parties across the continent hoping for big gains, the French president is seeking to rally liberal, internationalist forces which have been buoyed by Sunday’s Spanish election that saw a resurgence in fortunes for the strongly pro-Brussels Socialist Party.

Yet, the challenge for Macron and others of his ilk is that the election takes places in a context of major voter discontent and apathy. This is fuelled by the fact that the European Parliament, specifically, is generally not trusted by many in the continent for whom Brussels seems very remote to their day-to-day lives. Voter turnout at European Parliament elections has declined, slipping from 62 per cent in 1979 to a record low of 42 per cent in 2014. In some countries, turnout only just got into the double digits last time around.

This apathy comes despite the steadily growing powers enjoyed by the European Parliament. Originally created in the 1950s, it assumed enhanced political legitimacy in 1979 when it became a directly elected chamber. Since then, the legislature has assumed veto power over annual EU budgets of approximately €140 billion (Dh574.6 billion), and secured powers to amend or block a wide range of draft laws that are devised by the European Commission. The new members of the European Parliament will also have significant opportunity to influence the choice of the next president of the European Commission, widely viewed as the key office holder in Brussels.

This is because key groups in the parliament forged an agreement before the 2014 election, for the first time ever that the choice of candidate for president to succeed Jose Manuel-Barroso should be nominated by the voter bloc that secures the most seats. While national governments have ultimate power over the appointment, the legislature’s voice was louder than ever on the important decision to select Jean-Claude Juncker who has held the post for the last half decade.

Euro-sceptic parties grab attention

Yet, for all of this, it is the Euro-sceptic, anti-politics element of this year’s election that may capture the most attention and at this point in the campaign, there appears to be significant wind in the sails of anti-EU parties. Here they are seeking to build on the 2014 elections which saw major gains for anti-integration parties from the extreme-right to far-left. Over the last five years, the rise of these parties has already complicated decision-making in Brussels, including in the economic policy arena. This is because Euro-sceptic parties are generally anti-free trade, and the European Parliament has veto power over many international treaties. And there is a real possibility that anti-integration parties could win enough seats in the legislature this time around to significantly influence and potential stymie legislation, rather than just rant about it as is often now the case. Another reason for the high profile of Euro-sceptic parties this year is because of the role of former Donald Trump aide, Steve Bannon, who will speak on May 11 in Berlin at a rally organised by the far-right Alternative for Germany. Bannon is also prominent in Italy and has claimed credit for bringing the coalition government of far-right The League and populist Five Star together

Nevertheless, latest polls indicate that the balance of power in the parliament is most likely still to be held by a pro-integration majority. While this will be reassuring to many in the continent and beyond, it cannot nonetheless be taken for granted given the disenchantment of millions of people against the status quo in Brussels.

The increased popularity of Euro-sceptic parties reflects a wide range of factors, not just popular discontent with growing European integration. Broader issues include deep disquiet with long-established national political parties and systems, concern over immigration, and discontent over the post-2008 economic downturn and subsequent austerity measures.

Taken overall, the forthcoming parliamentary elections may well be the most consequential ever. With Euro-sceptics seeking to make big gains, the result could hinge on turnout and whether voters from the centre ground of European politics come out in large enough numbers to ensure that the preponderance of power in the legislature continues to be held by a moderate majority.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics