European Parliament elections start with prospects of ‘fragmented outcome’
Published: Jun 06, 2024 08:18 PM Updated: Jun 06, 2024 10:21 PM
China-EU Photo: VCG

China-EU Photo: VCG

People in 27 European Union member states will cast ballots from Thursday to Sunday to decide on the composition of the European Parliament for the next five years, in an election whose result could carry profound implications for the EU’s political direction and its China policy.

The elections received more attention in China than usual, as the EU’s announcement of a decision on planned tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) has been reportedly postponed until June 10 to keep "the issue out of the election campaign phase."

Underlining a well acknowledged consensus that right and far-right parties will make big gains, Chinese observers said the election outcome would reflect a fragmenting, right-leaning political landscape in Europe.

When the traditional “establishment” forces fail to effectively tackle prominent problems such as migrants, livelihoods and the energy crisis, populist parties which prioritize domestic matters and national interests are taking the stage of power, Zhao Junjie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of European Studies, told the Global Times on Thursday.

The fragmentation will bring about changes to China-EU relations, Zhao said, and there might be “positive” and “negative” changes simultaneously, as their attitude toward China varies on different topics, and we need to deal with Europe state by state and case by case.  

The European Parliament, the only directly elected EU institution, connects European citizens to the two other big institutions: the EU's executive branch – the European Commission – and the Council, which is made up of ministers from EU governments, media said.

By the end of Sunday, it will be clear which parties have won the Parliament's 720 seats, the BBC reported. The number of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) each country has is proportionate to its population.

Traditionally, the two biggest are the center-right European People's Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). The liberal Renew Europe group and the Greens/European Free Alliance were the next biggest in the last parliament, BBC reported.

But the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group have their sights on big gains.

Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Thursday that the key questions are: whether traditional parties can maintain their majority and nominate key posts in the European Commission and the Council; the budget; and how much the rising far-right parties can work together to expand their presence and influence future policies, Wang said. 

Current European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is seeking re-election, which is something the US would favor, as she takes quite a pro-US stance on a range of topics, analysts said. 

Zhao predicted that if von de Leyen gets re-elected, China-EU relations may face great disruption. 

In addition to division between factions, views are equally fragmented within the same political spectrum on the EU’s top priorities, such as achieving strategic and technological autonomy. The ECR maintains a strong anti-China stance, while the ID group has a more lenient approach, according to global advisory and advocacy firm APCO.

Wang added that the Greens, with their robust agenda on carbon reduction, need Chinese EVs, while some nativist parties, focusing solely on local manufacturing, are more likely to impose additional tariffs on Chinese EVs. 

Zhao also mentioned the rise of the far left, which has received less attention against the backdrop of the “overall shift to right.” It is not a monolithic trend of “center to right,” and all those minor, nuanced changes are worth noticing, the expert said. 

Since the Parliament has the right to approve budget plans, a change in composition could also affect EU aid to Ukraine, as some far-right parties do not embrace the traditional notion that Russia is an enemy, analysts said.

The European Parliament shapes the direction of EU laws and policies by amending and passing laws and deciding on international agreements and enlargements. It must endorse the EU's annual budget, and it can ask the Commission to propose legislation.

But as member states still handle defense, security and diplomatic issues independently, the shift in the European Parliament will not be immediately reflected in policies. Some key EU institution posts will be decided by yearend, when it will become clearer how China-EU relations will develop, Zhao said. 

Hopefully, more pragmatic figures can enter the policymaking circle so that China-EU relations can become more predictable and benefit both sides, Zhao noted. 

It is also worth noting that some far-right parties advocate for extreme agendas during their campaigns, but adopt a more pragmatic or “central” approach when taking power. Therefore, it is important for China not only to listen to their remarks, but also to follow their actions, Zhao said.