There is always temptation to vote ‘against’ rather than ‘for’ in order to punish the incumbent government, a phenomenon heavily exploited by populists.


There’s an old London saying that you wait hours for a number 11 bus, then two arrive together. Indian and EU citizens have been waiting for five years to cast their vote on their future and now the two elections arrive at the same time. The results will determine the future prospects of a quarter of the world’s population.

The Lok Sabha elections are obviously of major importance for all Indians, but why should they also be interested in the outcome of the EU elections?

For a start, there are strong family ties between India and the European Union. Some 2 million Indian diaspora live in Europe, of whom 1.4 million have chosen to live in the UK, forming no less than 2.4% of its population. The type of EU resulting from these elections could be of great significance to these ties. The main reason, though, is trade. Europe is India’s largest trading partner, accounting for 85 billion euros, or 13.1% of total India trade, ahead of China (11.4%) and the United States (9.5%). Trade in goods between the EU and India almost doubled in the past 10 years, and India is now the fourth largest service exporter to the EU. As a destination, Indian companies invested over 50 billion euros in the EU over the past two decades. All this is potentially put at risk by the surge of populism in many European countries.

The European elections, from 23 to 26 May, are the most important ever for the EU. Current predictions are that about a third of seats in the EU Parliament will go to the populists, robbing the centre left and centre right of the comfortable majorities they have always had. The big danger to moderate candidates is that voters in EU elections tend to vote on national issues rather than pan-European matters. Here, there is always the temptation to vote “against” rather than “for” in order to punish the incumbent government, a phenomenon heavily exploited by populists.

Europe is a Petri dish for populism. Take Britain, for example, with the surprisingly strong support for a new populist party, the Brexit party, led by Britain’s very own mini-Trump, Nigel Farage. Farage has always been a strong critic of the EU, while benefitting financially as an MEP (Member of the European Parliament). Launched only a month ago, the Brexit Party now commands a substantial lead over all traditional political parties in the UK. The governing party, the Conservatives, are currently polling in fourth place, a severe embarrassment for Prime Minister Theresa May.

In France two years ago, from seemingly nowhere, President Emmanuel Macron formed his populist En Marche party, which captured the imagination of the French people, fed-up with the traditional parties’ inability to solve their problems. And that’s the thing. Populism speaks the language of silent majorities and those who feel “left behind”. Populists blame the sufferings of “the people” on remote elites. “Vote for me and not for those corrupt elites who have let you down” is their message.

There is certainly plenty of evidence of adversity for populists to flaunt. The European economy is grinding to a halt. Italy is hovering on recession, having recently shrunk in the last two successive quarters. France grew a paltry 0.3% in each quarter. Germany’s GDP, the largest in the EU, contracted in the third quarter of 2018 and was flat in the fourth.

Unemployment in the EU remains stubbornly high. According to Eurostat, the official unemployment rate is 6.5%, higher than India’s 6.1%, but this masks a huge variation across the individual countries. Greece, for example, has an unemployment rate of 18.5%, closely followed by Spain with 14%. Even France, the third biggest economy in the EU and seventh in the world, has an official unemployment rate of 8.8%. And the victims of low growth and high unemployment? Ordinary working people, the target of the populists.

The populists’ biggest weapon in the EU, however, is migration. In many countries on the eastern and southern borders of the EU there is an existential fear of immigrants arriving in their country. National borders have been erected, contrary to the open-border Schengen agreement of 1995. A new “Iron Curtain” against immigration has descended across Eastern Europe. The words “migrant crisis” are repeatedly heard coming from the mouths of populist politicians, echoing the political reaction to the arrival in 2015 of more than 1 million migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean. Even though these numbers plummeted to 41,000 in 2018, polls show that migration remains voters’ number one concern across the EU, dwarfing those of low growth and unemployment. Immigration is red meat for the populists.

If populist parties hold sway in the new European Parliament, the internal working of the bloc and its external relationships could change dramatically. There will be the danger of countries following President Donald Trump’s policy of nationalism and neo-isolation. The Polish and Hungarian governments want to stop Macron’s drive towards greater integration and to return to the old ideals of a Common Market, aligned to a nationalistic model. Populists Victor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, and the French politician Marine Le Pen, will aim to shape the EU to their interests that deviate far from the original EU values of solidarity and respect for consensus-making policies. The EU could even break up under the strain.

The EU’s motto is “United in Diversity”. The forthcoming elections will unquestionably put this to the test.

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