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European Elections in June: Why Voting Matters

Legal scholar Pia Lange talks about the importance of the EU Parliament and the nation states’ habit of pointing the finger at Brussels.

University & Society

In June 2024, there will be European elections. The citizens of the 27 EU member states will decide who is going to represent them in the European Parliament. Accounting for 96 out of 720 seats, Germany has the most MEPs. up2date. spoke to Pia Lange about the importance of the election. She is professor for public law, European law, social law, as well as gender and diversity dimensions in law, and director of the Centre of European Law and Politics (ZERP) at the University of Bremen.

As a legal expert, to what extent do you deal with the European Union?

My work focuses on European law, for example the institutional structure of the EU and the Rule of Law crisis. In Poland and Hungary, in recent years, there have been developments that have presented the EU with major political and legal challenges. The Union is based on the common value of the Rule of Law, which includes the independence of the judiciary. The question was how the law should react if the values that were agreed upon in order to join this union are no longer upheld within the EU member states. We had to realize that the law is being stretched to its limits. The EU has used many means to counter this.

What are they?

There have been attempts to activate the “Article 7 Procedure.” This involves condemning certain events in the member states concerned and depriving them of their vote on the basis of a qualified majority of the other member states. However, Poland and Hungary have repeatedly blocked this procedure with their veto. Subsequently, they tried financial sanctions by linking the allocation of funds to compliance with certain values. That had some effect. Poland has partially withdrawn some of its judicial laws. Another option is to bring proceedings before the European jurisdiction; that is the European Court of Justice (ECJ). You can try to press charges for treaty violations. However, legal options are often limited.

… and if the political dynamics change as a result of an election?

A recent election in Poland has brought about a new balance of political powers. Attempts are now being made to reverse the previous erosion of the Rule of Law. But it’s not that easy. It won’t be possible to reverse the process in a short space of time. Poland will have to deal with this for a long time to come. Once the restructuring of the judiciary has been completed, the door is open to despotism. Lifetime positions have often been filled with people who are opposed to the Rule of Law.

All of this is currently happening in EU member states. Why do we need the European Union after all?

I would like to emphasize the importance of the EU Parliament in particular. We traditionally see a low voter turnout in European elections. One reason for this is that people are not aware of its importance. Since the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, the European Parliament has been a co-legislator. This means that we have not only the European Commission, which makes proposals, and the Council, the coordinating body of the individual member states, but we also have the European Parliament, which plays an important role in key issues. One example is the European Green Deal. It was introduced by the European Commission in 2019 in order to completely offset the greenhouse gases in the European Union, making it the first climate neutral continent by 2050.

Are you concerned that the right-wing populists might triumph in the upcoming European elections?

After the AfD party’s “remigration” plans were uncovered, Germany witnessed a committed civil society that showed its opposition by means of many large demonstrations. I hope that this trend will continue. That said, I fear that we will see a significant increase in right-wing populist parties. This also increases the risk that the European Parliament will be paralyzed by them. The more of them there are, the more difficult it will be to find a majority among the democratic parties.

In your opinion, what is the cause of the rise of right-wing populism across Europe?

I think many people feel that politics is failing to provide solutions to important issues. This includes issues such as climate protection and the transition to sustainable mobility. I think there is a danger of the CDU/CSU moving further right because they pick up on certain issues, adopt corresponding vocabulary, and try to ingratiate themselves. However, it would actually be important to draw a line in the sand. Here, I see shortcomings. Democratic parties need the ability and the willpower to reach a consensus.

The populist parties are calling for a return to the nation state.

What unites populist parties is that they reject the institutions of the EU and want to abolish them. This is contradictory because at the same time they use this institution as a stage and as a source of income. The decisive question is: What kind of Europe do we want to live in? If you look at the geopolitical situation, it is obvious that a return to the nation state cannot be the right path. In the UK, we have seen what populism can lead to. Brexit was a populist campaign. Without the single market, we also would lose importance in the global economy. UK citizens are currently feeling the bitter effects of this. Now, people are realizing that they were taken in by a propaganda campaign before the referendum.

The majority of our laws are made in Brussels. Is this not a loss of sovereignty for the individual nations?

There are often attempts to point the finger at Brussels. However, the Council is made up of representatives of our government. There are no laws that just come down on us. They are voted on – in the EU Parliament, with the EU Commission, in the Council. The German FDP party has blocked some things. That proves that a political blockade is possible. There are things that require consensus. In such cases, an abstention can make a big difference. If you keep pointing to Brussels and say: We didn’t do any of this; it all comes from above; we can’t do anything about it – then in most cases that’s simply not true. We need to demand more integrity.

What legal reforms do you regard as necessary in the long term?

The EU should focus even more on the welfare state. The financial crisis in the EU has led to a great deal of poverty in the southern European countries. Job markets must not be destroyed by austerity measures. We also need more financial compensation for certain population groups for the ecological transformation to take place. The EU can provide funds and set up programs for this.

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