Will 2019 Be the Year of Euro-Skeptics?

A poster at the National Rally’s headquarters outside Paris shows a smiling Marine Le Pen standing alongside Italy’s interior minister and League leader Matteo Salvini. “Everywhere in Europe,” reads the tagline, “our ideas are coming to power.”

The message is more than aspirational. As campaigning heats up for May European Parliament elections, experts predict the two far-right leaders and those of other nationalist movements may score strongly, with potentially sweeping consequences for the European Union.

“Complacency will be very dangerous with these elections,” said analyst Susi Dennison, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who estimates that “anti-European” parties could grab up to one-third or more of the vote. “The idea of change, that the political system is broken, is a very powerful one among European voters.”

Le Pen also sees a potential sea change, calling the upcoming vote a “historic turning point.”

“The European Union is dead,” the National Rally leader said during a recent interview with Anglophone journalists. “Long live Europe.”

If she proves right, the elections will consolidate a trend that has put Euro-skeptics into governments in Hungary, Italy, Austria and Poland, further weakening a union already shaken by internal divisions and Britain’s upcoming departure.

In France, the National Rally has rebounded from a stinging defeat in presidential and parliamentary elections two years ago, to become the country’s leading opposition force. Since taking control of the party her father founded in the 1970s, 50-year-old Le Pen has fundamentally revamped its pugnacious image and rhetoric — including a name tweak last year from its original moniker, the National Front.

From outsider to almost-mainstream

From once-shunned political outsider, the National Rally is now almost mainstream, surfing on the implosion of France’s center-right and center-left in 2017, and a shift in voter support to the political margins.

In a nod to its success, the conservative Les Republicains party has controversially borrowed some of its hardline rhetoric, notably on immigration.

Le Pen has also capitalized on the plummeting support for President Emmanuel Macron and his reformist agenda, seen with the weeks of “yellow vest” protests.

“Instead of offering an alternative to chaos,” she said of the president, “the French got both chaos and Macron.”

For the EU elections, she has tapped 23-year-old loyalist Jordan Bardella to head the party’s list and bolster its appeal to younger voters. Recent polls have shown the National Rally neck-and-neck with Macron’s Republic on the Move, although a survey released Friday found slipping support for the Le Pen’s party.

Still, it has traditionally fared well in EU Parliament elections, coming in first in the last 2014 vote, with nearly a quarter of the vote. Today, Le Pen is banking on a broader win.

“I think Europe is moving toward the return of nation-states, and we’re part of this great political movement supporting this,” she said. “Our goal is to turn the EU into a cooperation among nations, and not this kind of European super state.”

Eroding support for pro-EU parties

An EU Parliament forecast released last week appears to bolster her prediction. While parliament’s top two blocs, the Christian Democrats and Socialists will retain their primacy, it finds their overall share of membership and support is expected to erode.

Meanwhile, nationalist parties including Italy’s League and Le Pen’s National Rally are expected to grow sizably, with the latter predicted to gain six parliamentary seats to reach 21 in total.

Launching their European parliament campaign in Rome last October, Le Pen and Italy’s Salvini predicted a win by nationalist parties would bring “common sense” to Europe, and blasted key EU officials, including European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as “enemies of the people.”  

Like other European populist leaders, both have sought counsel from Steve Bannon, an EU skeptic and former political advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump, who founded a Brussels-based initiative called The Movement.

Europe’s populists are riding on citizen ambivalence and outright antipathy to a bloc many consider too soft on immigration and overly focused on bureaucracy. Recent Eurobarometer surveys show that while two-thirds of Europeans believe their country has benefited from being part of the EU — a 35-year high — only four in 10 have a positive image or trust in it.

A strong showing by euro-skeptic parties could have significant repercussions for the EU, she said, giving them greater influence and access to key posts, including in the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body.

“The challenge for EU institutions and pro-EU politicians going into this elections, is to find issues on which Europe can deliver that will mobilize voters” such as climate change, she added.

Exploiting weaknesses

Nationalist parties also have weaknesses that pro-European ones can exploit, Dennison said, including differences on how to handle immigration. And while some populist parties are calling for nothing less than the EU’s demise, others want to reform, not break it.

In France, the National Rally’s prospects may be complicated by the yellow vest protest movement. Some yellow vests are eyeing an EU Parliament run, but the movement is leaderless and disorganized, and the idea of turning grassroots action into a political force is controversial.

“The yellow vests present both a threat and an opportunity for Marine Le Pen,” said political scientist Jean Petaux, of Sciences-Po Bordeaux University, “They could offer her party a chance to enlarge its audience as the party that listens to their grievances.”

But a yellow vest list could steal votes from the National Rally, he added.  

In Le Pen’s favor is the traditionally poor turnout for EU elections in France, Petaux said, leading to a potentially significant protest vote.  

“When you have a low turnout,” he said, “it is usually those who are against who mobilize — not those who are for.”

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