I would wager that fewer than one in five Americans who take an interest in Europe understand very well the actual role played by the European Union. The relationship between its executive branch (the European Commission) and its Parliament, their respective powers relative to Europe’s national governments—it’s all very complicated and fluid. But it does seem to be governed by one iron law: the EU’s power, however limited, expands inexorably despite periodic votes by various European peoples against such expansion. 

Tasking themselves with forming a strategy to protect “Europe” from the votes of an increasingly Euroskeptic electorate, two staffers at the European Council of Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, have just published a document that explains much of this. Susi Dennison’s and Pawel Zerka’s guide to the 2019 European elections, subtitled “How anti-Europeans Plan to Wreck Europe and What Can be Done to Stop It,” is of great value however much one disagrees with the politics of the authors. 

The two lay out quite clearly what is and is not at stake in this May’s elections, how the balance of power within the European Parliament might conceivably change, and what the actual stakes are (considerable but not earthshaking) as well as the symbolic ones (greater if they set a tone for future national elections). The authors lay out in a fairly objective manner the aspirations of the Euroskeptics, while also suggesting how to thwart them. And while they don’t try to predict the election results—much can happen between now and May 26—they do provide guidance as to what the various outcomes might lead to.

Dennison and Zerka consider 2019 to be the most consequential European Parliament vote ever. Though resolutions passed by the Parliament have no real power, the authors worry that if Euroskeptic parties on both the right and left combine for more than 33 percent of the seats, they will be able to shape legislation, influence executive decisions, and change the tenor of the debate within European institutions.

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Skepticism over “free trade” is one issue that unites the populists. The authors worry that if their parties form a de facto alliance around the issue, even as a minority, they could “significantly slow down the EU’s free trade agenda.” A 33 percent Euroskeptic minority could block the EU’s “Article 7” mechanism, which allegedly defends “the rule of law” in member states and is currently being deployed against the governments of Hungary and Poland.

On migration, easily the most critical issue for the conservative Euroskeptic parties, the authors note that the Parliament has “mostly non-legislative competences”—i.e. little actual power. But the European Commission must ask the Parliament for its “opinion,” and even if that counts for little in and of itself, the body could still delay giving it. Heretofore, the Parliament has produced exhortatory pro-migration resolutions, and these could be inhibited. As the authors put it, “the major threat to the EU’s migration policies stemming from the 2019 EP election is that [anti-immigrant voices] would become much stronger than they are today, which could limit the capacity of member states and the Council to seek a humanitarian and solidarity based approach towards migration challenges rather than securitizing the issue.” In other words, the EU might have less capacity to pass resolutions calling for a “holistic” approach, rallying support for the settlement of more migrants.

On foreign policy, the EU has little real power other than making resolutions, but the authors note that those resolutions are “perceived as an expression of the EU’s foreign policy.” While only a majority is needed for the Parliament to choose the next president of the European Commission, a sizable one-third minority could gum up the works in the selection of commissioners, which the authors fear could render the body “less internationalist and principled on the main global issues Europe faces.”

In other words, what confronts the EU is the prospect of a Parliament that renders it less neoliberal in the tone of its pronouncements, even if its actual policies don’t change. To achieve more, the Euroskeptic parties would need to advance well beyond that one-third threshold, which is not in the cards for now.

As noted above, the main focus of the conservative Euroskeptic campaign is immigration. The authors quote Hungary’s president Victor Orbán claiming that “the conventional division of parties on the right and left will be replaced by the division between those which are pro-immigration and those which are anti-immigration,” and seem to agree. They note that immigration is a unifying force for right-wing parties that disagree on other issues (Russia, for instance), and that it has “caused mainstream parties of the right and left to advocate increasingly draconian approaches to immigration management.” Here, their paper, in its candor, becomes almost amusing. “The nationalists focus on migration is well chosen,” they acknowledge, “because the issue not only resonates with voters but also demonstrates the divides within the much larger pro-European camp. It seems that most European voters would prefer to reduce immigration.” The authors then outline various strategies by which the pro-migration forces can thwart the will of the voters.

To accomplish this, they recommend exploiting divisions within the Euroskeptic alliance. For instance, while both Hungary and Italy have governments hostile to migration, Italy wants migrants “redistributed” (because many land first at its shores) while Hungary does not. Similar differences of opinion exist over Russia, with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National far less hostile than Poland’s government, for example. The authors urge that the pro-Europe parties “not let themselves become entangled in an all-encompassing debate on migration.” Instead they should change the subject to foreign policy, climate change, and defense, where the nationalist positions are less united.

They also advocate that EU supporters engage in polemics over how the “anti-Europeans” are doing the work of the Kremlin, while enhancing appeals to voters in “cosmopolitan cities” with claims that the nationalist agenda poses “an existential threat to Europe.”

In all of this, there are critical underlying issues of language and definition, emerging from a greater difference between an understanding of “Europe” as a geographic territory with a shared history and culture (even if that history is in great part a story of war and conflict) and “Europe” as an entity embodied by the European Commission in Brussels. Euroskeptic voters are rebelling against the latter in great part because migration has made large and ever-expanding parts of their countries feel not particularly European. In France, the phrase increasingly used to describe some sections is “territories lost to the Republic”—and variations on that exist throughout Western Europe. So voters support anti-migration parties, only to get depicted as “anti-Europe.”

The pro-Brussels folks thus pretend that there’s nothing more “European” than neighborhoods filled with women dressed in burkas and unofficially policed by Islamic authorities. But for many, this is an obvious and massive lie.

In any case, not much will be changed substantively by the May 2019 vote. The election could serve as an opportunity to consolidate national power by either the pro- or anti-EU parties, though that power won’t allow for much to get done. And the results are not easy to foresee. For example, Emmanuel Macron has rallied dramatically in the polls over the past six weeks, using the bully pulpit of the presidency and the pretense of a national conversation to campaign more or less unopposed while appearing to many as a more reassuring force than the gilet jaunes. Other unexpected twists and turns could bolster the establishment parties prior to the May ballot. 

But even if the stakes are as much symbolic as concrete, their momentum could carry over to national elections. And Dennison and Zerka are surely correct to name them the most consequential European Parliament elections ever.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.