Forward or backward? Decision time in the EU

Four days of voting in European Parliament elections are underway in a poll that will decide the EU's future course: a return to nationalism or more integration to increase its global strength? Bernd Riegert reports.

"The elections taking place on 26 May will decide the destiny of this continent," the leader of the Christian Democratic bloc in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, declared at a plenary session last month. Weber heads the list of candidates for his political family, the European People's Party (EPP), and he is not alone: Many politicians from all camps have been using the same terms to describe the upcoming European elections. Weber intends to run for president of the European Commission. He sees the vote as a straight fight between pro-Europeans and nationalists. "This Europe that we're living in today is a good Europe," he says. "We won't let today's nationalists destroy it for us."

There have never been as many right-wing populists and euroskeptics in EU member states as there are for this election. Opinion polls are indicating that they could get more than 20% of the seats.

Read more: 'Vast' far-right disinformation networks discovered in EU

The Europe of Orban or Macron?

The national-conservative prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, sees the election as a battle between the illiberal democracy he represents, and liberal democrats. The Hungarian premier has allied himself with German, French, Danish and Italian right-wing parties. He claims that liberal democrats want to "exchange" Europe's population and "Islamicize” it with an influx of migrants. "We have to understand that Europe has reached a historic crossroads," Orban said in a speech on Hungary's national holiday. He declared that anyone who welcomed illegal migrants and refugees was "creating nations of mixed races. In such countries, historic traditions come to an end and a new world order emerges."

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is the figure right-wing populists like Viktor Orban, Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, or Heinz-Christian Strache, the recently disgraced leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, love to hate. Macron has declared war on "illiberal democracy" and has called for a European "renaissance," for solidarity and compassion. Macron is proposing major reforms, and he, too, sees the election as a fateful one. "The most important battle in this election is the conflict between those who believe in Europe and those who do not," the French president said at a meeting of his party, La Republique En Marche!, a month before the election.

Read more: Are right-wing populists a threat to European climate policy?

Relations between Macron and Orban are not always cordial

Not just migration

The established, Europe-friendly parties say the issues the EU needs to address over the coming years are migration, climate protection, trade policy and establishing a strong international role for Europe. There's little divergence here between Weber, the EPP's lead candidate, and his counterpart Frans Timmermans from the Party of European Socialists. Both want a new partnership with Africa, for example, and to concentrate more on investing in the countries refugees are coming from.

For the right-wing populists, on the other hand, there is only one issue: isolating Europe, putting up barriers and trying to keep migrants out. The Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, for example, says: "The most important goal for us is an anti-immigration majority, and Hungary will contribute to that."

The right-wing populists promise their voters a completely different Europe, in which national states will get back rights they have supposedly lost, and the central government in Brussels will be disempowered. Frans Timmermans of the Socialist parliamentary group, who is currently vice president of the European Commission in Brussels, thinks this is nonsense. "We will not hand over power to the extremists in Europe. It's an election that will decide our destiny. It's your decision. You decide what kind of Europe we will have for the next five years," Timmermans said in a debate on German television.

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'EU is resilient'

The composition of the new parliament will force Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens to work together in a grand coalition, according to Janis Emmanouilidis, a Europe expert from the European Policy Center, a think tank in Brussels. However, Emmanouilidis does not believe there will be a complete change of course in the EU after the elections. "We're not going to see a hostile takeover of the EU," he says. "We must examine this critically, but at the same time, we shouldn't exaggerate and be too negative. The EU has displayed considerable resilience in the past, and that will also be the case in the future."

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He says that, having survived the debt and migration crises, it's important that the new parliament arm itself for new crises relating to the economy or its relationships with the United States, Russia, or China. Emmanouilidis warns that here, too, there are decisions to be made about the EU's future political direction. "There will be more crises. At this point we don't know whether these crises will arise out of old problems, or whether there will be new challenges. We have to prepare ourselves to weather the storms."

Karel Lannoo, the CEO of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, says that, after the election, the EU must focus above all on economic development and closing the gap in living standards between the richer north and the poorer south. This, he says, is also the only real way of solving the problem of right-wing populism, which tends to to occur more widely in poorer countries. Karel Lannoo is calling for "more integration": "The most important thing," he says, "is to make the European single market even stronger, and to be able to trade more with non-European countries. Domestically, we need to consider energy policy, digital economy, and greater freedom of movement for people. Externally, the issue is that free trade has been under attack since Trump became president. It's likely that even more tariffs will be imposed."

Female faces of Europe's right-wing populists

France: Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen has led France's far-right populist National Rally party, formerly known as the National Front, since 2011. Le Pen has tried to soften her party's far-right image, going as far as to expel her own father — the party's founder — from the party after he referred to Nazi gas chambers as "a point of detail of the history of World War II."

Female faces of Europe's right-wing populists

Germany: Frauke Petry

Frauke Petry's anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies helped the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) enter the German parliament in 2017. She quit as leader of the AfD in September, 2017, due to what she said were extremist statements by other party leaders preventing "constructive opposition." She now sits as an independent in both the national and regional Saxony parliament in Germany.

Female faces of Europe's right-wing populists

Germany: Alice Weidel

Alice Weidel has been co-chair of the AfD since October, 2017 following Petry's departure. A 2013 email revealed Weidel describing Germany as being "overrun by culturally foreign people such as Arabs, Sinti and Roma." The email also described the government as "pigs" who were "puppets of WWII allies." Weidel's party opposes same-sex marriage, but she in a same-sex partnership herself.

Female faces of Europe's right-wing populists

Poland: Beata Szydlo

Beata Szydlo is the Deputy Prime Minister of Poland and vice chairman of the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) that holds the majority in the parliament. The party is strongly against EU migrant quotas and in 2017, then-Prime Minister Szydlo came under fire for seemingly using an appearance at former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi German death camp to highlight her anti-migrant policies.

Female faces of Europe's right-wing populists

Norway: Siv Jensen

Siv Jensen leads Norway's Progress party, which is a part of the center-right government coalition. She promotes individual rights and freedoms, and has listed former British Conservative Party Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher among her political heroes. Jensen is an outspoken supporter of Israel, and has called to move the Norwegian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Female faces of Europe's right-wing populists

Italy: Giorgia Meloni

Co-founder and leader of the national conservative Brothers of Italy party, Giorgia Meloni has a long history in far-right politics. She joined the Youth Front, the youth-wing of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, at age 15. From May 2008 to November 2011 Meloni was minister of youth under Silvio Berlusconi. Her party is currently in the center-right coalition that's in power in Italy.

Pia Kjaersgaard

Female faces of Europe's right-wing populists

Denmark: Pia Kjaersgaard

Pia Kjaersgaard is co-founder of the far-right Danish People's Party, which she led from 1995 to 2012. She is known for her strong anti-multiculturalism and immigration views. Her main interests are stemming immigration into Denmark and care for the elderly. In 2003, she lost a libel suit in the Danish Supreme Court against anti-EU activist Karen Sunds who had said Kjaersgaard's views were racist.

European democracy's big moment

Decisive question, crossroads, turning point, last chance: Some dramatic imagery is being used in the run-up to the elections, which will take place between 23 and 26 May. Of course, the elections are important, says Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the European Commission; however, one shouldn't exaggerate. "I've been in European politics for quite a few years now, and I can't recall a single election where there wasn't talk of 'Europe being at a crossroads.' We're always there, actually, and that's as it should be," Schinas said recently in an interview with the TV station Euronews. "As we head into the European elections, we shouldn't be overly dramatic. It's European democracy's big moment, and that's something we should also rather enjoy."

Candidates for European Commission president

Manfred Weber (EPP)

The center-right European People's Party (EPP) — the largest faction in the European Parliament — has picked Manfred Weber, its German parliamentary party leader. He has the backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Though considered the front-runner, Weber is little known on the international stage, and his language skills are considered poor.

Candidates for European Commission president

Frans Timmermans (S&D)

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission's first vice president, will lead the campaign for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D). Weber's main rival promises to bring the bloc closer to ordinary voters at a time when Britain's looming exit is one factor behind the nationalist movements across the EU.

Candidates for European Commission president

Margrethe Vestager (ALDE)

Margrethe Vestager, 51, is one of seven lead candidates for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats. As the current EU commissioner for competition, the Danish MEP has taken on corporations like Apple, Amazon and Google parent Alphabet. It's also been said that she served as the inspiration for the main character in Borgen, a Danish series where a woman becomes Denmark's first female leader.

Candidates for European Commission president

Jan Zahradil (ECR)

The third-largest group in the EU Parliament, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), has just one candidate: Jan Zahradil, chairman of the Czech ECR delegation. Zahradil, 65, is affectionately known as "Forrest Gump" for cycling from Prague to Strasbourg for a session of the European Parliament and for once running 1,300 kilometers (about 800 miles) across the Czech Republic for charity.

Candidates for European Commission president

Ska Keller (Greens/EFA)

The Greens/EFA is the seventh largest group in European Parliament, so the German is a long shot to become European Commission president. The Greens have proposed a job share, with two candidates serving for two-and-a-half years each. The most favorite to join Keller is Dutch lawmaker Bas Eickhout.

Candidates for European Commission president

Violeta Tomic and Nico Cue (GUE/NGL)

The EU's left-wing groups will be headed by Spanish trade unionist Nico Cue and Violeta Tomic (at left). Tomic is a deputy in Slovenia's National Assembly, best known as a TV presenter and actress. She entered into politics in 2014 and has been an advocate for LGBT rights and stronger citizens' rights in Europe. Cue grew up in Belgium after his family was forced to flee Franco's Soain.

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