It’s become somewhat familiar. Every five years, we pro-Europeans say: “This European election is the most important ever.” We remember a few months before the 2009 European elections, Lehman Brothers had just collapsed, and a serious financial crisis hit first the USA and then the old continent. A united European Union seemed more important than ever to cushion the stumbling banking sector.

By 2014, the global financial crisis had long since become a European sovereign debt crisis, which had led to polarization and rifts. It, therefore, seemed all the more important that the EP elections send a signal of European unity (which did not really happen).

More recently, in 2019, Donald Trump had been US President for two years, the British had voted for Brexit, the “refugee crisis” had reached its peak, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that the EU had a problem with upholding the rule of law within its own ranks.

Once again, according to the tenor of the time, the upcoming European elections were the most important ever to successfully counter centrifugal forces at a critical juncture. It’s now old hat to claim that the upcoming European elections are particularly important. And yet, it is true. Once again. This time, especially so.

Why? Let’s take a look at where the EU stands today. The situation is serious. It was serious five years ago, but the stakes are even higher this time. It is fair to say that the EU is possibly in the most decisive phase in 70 years of integration history. The number and severity of the many crises, challenges, and upheavals it is facing at the same time are unprecedented. Taken together, they have the potential to shake elementary pillars of what we know as the European order.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has ruthlessly revealed that Europe’s security needs to be completely reorganized. Both militarily and economically, the EU must invest massively to reduce critical dependencies. This is all the more true as the transatlantic future is uncertain, and China is becoming an increasingly obvious systemic rival.

The fight against climate change requires even greater efforts than we have been prepared to accept to date. At the same time, we have a lot of catching up to do in the digital transformation, which, together with the shift towards greater sustainability, will massively change the European economic order. Nothing less than our future competitiveness and Europe’s economic cohesion are at stake here. Enrico Letta’s recently published Single Market report has shown how great the need for action is.

New challenges compounded by old ones

All of this would be grave enough. However, the EU still has several legacy issues to deal with as well. Some crises and problems we discussed in 2009, 2014, and 2019 have still not been adequately resolved. The eurozone is still not sufficiently crisis-proof. The banking union and the capital markets union remain unfinished.

The latest compromise on asylum reform is probably not adequate for solving the problem in a sustainable manner. Relations with the United Kingdom, which are becoming more important in the geopolitical age, are insufficiently managed. Last but not least, parts of the EU governance are simply no longer suitable for successfully tackling all these grand challenges.

For example, moving away from the principle of unanimity in foreign and security policy is no longer just a dream of European federalists but a political necessity. The same applies to enforcing the principle of the rule of law, which must be a non-negotiable nucleus of the EU’s internal order. Both priorities–an enforceable strengthening of the rule of law and the expansion of majority decisions–are central pillars of long overdue reforms that must be accompanied by more flexible cooperation possibilities (keyword “coalitions of the willing”).

This is even more important if the EU, for good reason, wants to seriously push ahead with its enlargement to include the Western Balkan states, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia, and hopefully Ukraine in the next legislative period. A report by independent French and German experts in September 2023 made a very clear case for this link between enlargement and reform – and was fortunately heard at last year’s European Council in Granada. But how long will this recognition last, and how solid will it be in the coming legislative period? Will the EU really have the strength in the next five years to successfully tackle all the challenges and reforms upon which its fate depends?

A shift to the right changes the dynamics of political action

This question brings us back to the European elections. According to current polls, parties on the far right are expected to make gains, while social democratic, liberal, and green parties are likely to lose ground. If the two right-wing camps “European Conservatives and Reformists” (ECR) and “Identity and Democracy” (ID) were to join forces, as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has had in mind for quite some time, they could together be the second largest EP group. Some pollsters think they even could gain enough support to form the largest political power in the next EP.

Given the historic track record and still considerable differences of opinion in Europe’s right-wing populist party landscape, it seems doubtful that such an alliance will actually emerge. Furthermore, the centrist groups are likely to continue to have an absolute majority, even if this will turn out to be tighter. But there are no fixed coalitions in the European Parliament and the degree of party discipline is significantly lower compared to national politics. Therefore, it is to be expected that a lurch to the right will change the dynamics of parliamentary work and will make it more difficult to find political solutions.

If right-wing populist voices become louder on key issues such as migration, support for Ukraine, or the Green Deal, this will increase the pressure on center-right parties. Against this backdrop, the maneuvering of the European People’s Party (EPP), which has often voted with S&D and Renew in the current term, will be of particular importance in the next legislative period. As the presumably strongest force, will it move closer to the positions of the right-wing fringe, for example, on migration or climate issues? Or could it look for majority options beyond the liberal, socialist, and green camps, particularly among parties of the ECR? Either would qualitatively increase the significance of the quantitative gains of the right-wing camp. 

Admittedly, the future of Europe does not depend solely on the European elections. The national elections taking place in the super-election year of 2024 and over the next legislative period are at least as important. The US presidential election, in particular, will have a massive impact on the EU.

Nevertheless, the European Parliament has become an important power factor that many European citizens underestimate, and so its composition for the next legislative period is of the utmost importance. It is an equal legislator with the governments of the Member States in almost all key areas and will play a crucial role in shaping European policy for almost all of the challenges described above.

It must confirm the new Commission and its President; it co-decides on the multi-annual EU budget; it must approve all EU reforms and amendments to European treaties; and, finally, it must support enlargements to include new members.

The majority ratios and the culture of debate in the European Parliament have a direct influence on how united and capable of action the EU will be in the coming years. The greater the headwind against the necessary steps towards integration and the more polarization emanating from the EP, the more difficult it will be for Europe to guarantee its basic promises of peace, freedom, and prosperity in the future.

With this in mind, our experts have written a series of articles that we will publish here over the next several weeks. The articles address not only the challenges the EU must face—like China as a rival, EU-UK relations, and the reconstruction of Ukraine—but also how democracy and institutions in the EU function, from enlargement reforms to citizens’ assemblies. Check our blog for new articles each week as we count the days until the European elections.

About the author

Malte Zabel is Co-Director of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program, which pursues projects on the EU’s sovereignty, a coherent internal market, and European public opinion.

Read more articles on our 2024 European Elections page.