Every five years, members of the European Parliament are directly elected to represent more than 500 million constituents from their respective countries. The EP is the only directly elected institution at the European Union level.
The next election will take place from May 23-26, in what has been termed a ‘critical election’ in terms of the impact on the future composition of the parliament, as well as the future direction of the EU.
This election comes at a particularly critical time for the EU and Europe as a whole compared to the one in 2014. In the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016, populist parties with right-wing tendencies have gained electoral appeal with one direct result being the rise of greater scepticism towards the European project. Other aspects, including the continued uncertainty surrounding the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU, will certainly have an impact on the general direction of the European project. The emergence of new forces on the election scene including the possible shift from party politics to movement politics and, in addition to such internal dynamics, these developments have an impact in terms of the EU’s relations with other countries.
For Europe, the election outcome will have two key impacts. First, the distribution of votes among the different political groupings will directly influence the selection of the next European Commission president, the president of the European Council, the head of the European Central Bank, and the high representative for External Affairs. Following the vote for the parliament, the European Council will propose a new leadership for the EU institutions in the autumn of 2019. The final vote, and approval, for those posts then rests in the hands of the European Parliament. In this regard, the May election provides an early indication of the direction of the EU in the coming years.
Second, the election outcome directly impacts the agenda priorities for the EU as a whole. With larger parties expected to lose votes and populist parties, on both the right and the left, as well as new political coalitions expected to make gains, the new parliament will be marked by more intense political debates, more ad hoc coalitions and, possibly, greater uncertainty.
As a result, decision-making could even be pushed more to the inter-governmental level resulting in a battle for influence between Brussels and the EU’s member states. At the same time, liberal and green coalition movements could prove to be a counterweight to any populist tendencies and reinvigorate some of the waning support for European democracy.
In either case, the European Parliament election is also a contest about the future of European decision-making.
On the surface, the implications of the election for the GCC states appear limited given that the election campaign is hardly about issues with direct relevance to the Middle East. Yet, this is not the case if one examines the interconnections on issues of concern for both Europe and the Gulf region.
Indirectly, the fact that Europe will be preoccupied with itself as the election results get sorted and as new political arrangements emerge, issues of importance to the Gulf region will not be on top of the Brussels agenda. For the GCC states to seek European support or assistance on particular issues of concern, the initiative will have to be taken from Gulf capitals.
Directly, and as the dust begins to settle on the election outcome, the GCC states will need to deal with the reality of the new parliament. Decisions on future issues will likely be determined by the formation of ad hoc coalitions that could also change from one subject area to the next. Given the centrality of the European Parliament to EU decision-making and the likelihood that the next parliament will be more complex than the last, the GCC states will have to work on their coalition building to ensure that the EU’s and GCC’s core interests continue to converge.
Europe and the Gulf share numerous interests in which cooperation provides concrete benefits. These interests range from human rights, the promotion of trade links, Yemen, climate change, the reconstruction of Syria, combating extremism and terrorism, the future of the nuclear agreement with Iran, renewable energy, stabilising Iraq, the future of Libya, to the implications of artificial intelligence and technology. Here, the GCC states must find a productive working relationship with the new parliament if progress on common issues and concerns is to be achieved.
In the above context, the European Parliament election is indeed important and, therefore, its results should be closely monitored and analysed also in the Gulf region.
Christian Koch is a senior adviser at the Bussola Institute in Brussels. Nadine Aly is a researcher with Bussola.