Year XXXVI, Number 3, November 2023
2024 European Parliament Elections: the Union to Come
Director of the Centro Studi sul Federalismo
There is less than a year left before the next election of the European Parliament, scheduled for 6 to 9 June 2024. The vote will start the transition from one of the most troubled, and often dramatic, legislatures in the history of European integration to a new five-year period, whose challenges and risks are already emerging. Awareness that the European elections will be a fundamental step for the construction of Europe is rising rapidly. The time has come to present both a provisional assessment and some possible scenarios for the Europe to come.
When, in the summer of 2019, the then candidate for President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, indicated the “double transition”, ecological and digital, and the “geopolitical” role of the Commission as strategic objectives of her presidency, no one could have imagined that we were on the eve of a global pandemic and would also witness the return of the war of aggression in Europe. Nevertheless, von der Leyen’s programme captured the epochal impact of the climate crisis, the role that technological sovereignty had now assumed, and the need to question the role of the Union in a world dealing with an unstable multipolarity.
Covid-19 has given a boost to the redesign of the economic governance of the Union, from the suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact to the launch of Next Generation EU, with the creation of a common European debt, to a new European Stability Mechanism connected to the Banking Union. We still do not know how Putin’s imperialism will be defeated, but we know that action is urgently needed for a new European security, that encompasses energy (after years of short-sighted dependence on Russian fossil fuels) and military defence, within the framework of a NATO that is revitalised and enlarged by Russian aggression. Equally relevant will be the prospects of enlargement (“widening”) to new Member States, which will re-propose the theme of “deepening” of the institutional architecture of the Union, thanks to the ambitious proposals that the European Parliament is pushing forward to reform the EU Treaties.
In her 2023 State of the Union Address to the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, on 13 September, Ursula von der Leyen stressed, and rightly so, the above successes and the challenges to come. Obviously for the moment she has given no indication at all on her willingness to apply for a second mandate as Commission’s President, after the European elections in June 2024. But how are the European political camps preparing for the electoral test?
The debate on a possible overcoming of the agreement between the Popular parties and the Socialists (already a minority in 2019 in terms of seats), on which the construction of Europe has been based for decades, has gone on for some months, not only in the Brussels bubble. Are we moving towards a redefining of the form of European bipolarity between a centre-right and a centre-left? The pivot of the first would be an agreement between the EPP (European People’s Party), led by Manfred Weber, and the ECR, the party of European Conservatives and Reformists, whose president, Giorgia Meloni, is the head of the Italian government. But it is already evident that a large part of the EPP members would not support that agreement, and the polls exclude any possibility of an EPP-ECR majority in the upcoming European Parliament. Thus, the so called “Ursula majority” (including EPP, S&D and Renew Europe) seems to be regaining momentum. Nevertheless, it is worth broadening our reflections on the European political dynamics.
Several variables intertwine in the European political space: while the “traditional” distinction between right and left does not seem to have blurred, far from it, this distinction is intertwined with that between the sovereignists and the integrationists (already outlined, with foresight, in the Ventotene Manifesto). But even the “sovereign” camp appears in turn to be riddled with different visions of a European future. The “polycrisis”, the multiple crises in which we are still immersed, could split the sovereignist camp and push the forces that are aiming for a pure and simple destruction of the European edifice (mostly members of the far-right Identity and Democracy group) to the sidelines.
In the medium term, the EU could see an “American” type dynamic, with a centre-right more attentive to the rights of States and more wary of “interference” at the European level, except on issues such as security (immigration included) and defence, and on the other hand, a centre-left alignment more confident about the intervention of the European (“federal”) level, particularly in the economic field. However, it is clear that if (the governments of) some Member States question the very foundations of the rule of law, mutual trust and “sincere cooperation” on which the European institutions are based would be undermined.
At the same time, one can wonder about the impact of a new European bipolarity. The political-institutional system of the Union has been almost by definition “centripetal”, with a broad convergence at the centre on shared common policies. Would a European bipolarity trigger a “normalisation” of the European political scene or rather a “centrifugal” dynamic, which could undermine the legitimacy of the Union’s choices in the eyes of the electors of the losing side? A broad bipartisan convergence (i.e., a new “Ursula majority”) on the two decisive pillars of the future Union, the economic and the security, therefore, remains desirable. But after the vote, at least some of the ECR members could join this majority, especially if it is a slight majority. However, the European elections are not the end of the story: in a “Union of Peoples and States”, what should always be taken into account are the dynamics and balances within the institutional triangle of Commission-Parliament-Council.
As stated above, the European Parliament will conclude the current legislature with an ambitious proposal (supported by the centre-left parties) to reform the EU Treaties, that will focus first of all on getting rid of unanimity voting. There is no realistic chance that the European Council will convene a Convention for the revision of the Treaties before the 2024 elections (although it could be decided by a simple majority). What can be hoped is that the reform proposals will at least enter the debate during the electoral campaign and then be at the forefront of the new legislature’s agenda – even though its start could be uphill, with the first six-monthly presidencies of the Council entrusted, in order, to Hungary and Poland.
The European legislature 2024-2029 will have on its agenda formidable strategic global dilemmas: between democracies and autocracies, between multilateralism and unilateralism, between cooperation and competition. The common theme should be that of European strategic autonomy, or how to find degrees of European independence (sovereignty) in a world that is and will remain interdependent, and in which uncertainty dominates: from the scarce prospects of a “just peace” for Ukraine (along with the start of its reconstruction), to the relationship with a China in which nationalistic tendencies are growing, to the United States as an indispensable partner, but with a presidential election, on 5 November 2024, that could repeat the Biden-Trump confrontation, to the push to give a political voice to the heterogeneous “Global South”.
As stated by Ursula von der Leyen in Strasbourg, “Once again, this is Europe’s moment to answer the call of history”. As for Italy, as the European elections draw near, it must be hoped that the political forces and the media do not linger in short-sighted confrontations (favoured by proportional voting) on domestic equilibria. In Europe, political coalitions are built on political agendas, on decisive issues for our future and for the younger generations. A founding member of the Union, for which Europeanism and Atlanticism have always been the pillars of its “being in the world”, must know how to rise to the challenges that await us all.