A woman walks past election campaign billboards in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, April 30, 2019.
A woman walks past election campaign billboards in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, April 30, 2019.

Political parties across Europe are kicking off their campaigns for possibly the most consequential EU election since 1979, when voters began casting ballots for a European parliament. 

Turnout is normally low in all 28 member states, averaging around 43%, but the continent's new kind of populist and nationalist parties hope this year will be different. Voting is set to take place between May 23 and May 26. 

Their leaders suspect high turnouts will be to their benefit as they seek to halt European integration and turn the clock back to a time, in their mind, when nation states didn't pool their sovereignty with their neighbors. According to a recent Europe-wide poll, two-thirds of all Europeans, and three-quarters of Germans, are planning to participate in the election.

For populists, pocketbook issues are taking second place to national identity, and their message is rooted in anti-migrant sentiments.

Pedestrians walk toward the European Parliament in
Pedestrians walk toward the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, April 30, 2019.

Europe's establishment parties, which are based more on socio-economic class politics, could buckle in this month's European Parliament elections under the challenge from populist parties, which base themselves on socio-cultural divides. Polls show populist support is growing.

According to British pollster Michael Ashcroft, more than half the voters in Britain don't feel represented by the main political parties. Culture and identity issues are more salient than economic ones for them, he says.

Other pollsters in Europe say they, too, are seeing cultural issues becoming more important for voters. 

Macron vs. Salvini

Two conflicting visions of Europe are on offer with centrists led by French President Emmanuel Macron and nationalist populists championed by Italy's far-right leader, Matteo Salvini.The populists have turned to former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon for advice.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for the a
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for the annual May Day ceremony at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France, May 1, 2019.

Macron has pitched himself as the antidote to the so-called "illiberal democracies" of central Europe and the defender of the European Union. The French leader wants to reform and revive the bloc by deepening the political and economic integration of Europe.

The 44-year-old Salvini wants not only to halt further integration, but to mount a reversal so the bloc becomes more of a looser group of nation states less hedged by Brussels and EU treaties. "We're working for a new European dream," Salvini said in March at a gathering of like-minded populist leaders from Germany, Finland and Denmark.

He wants populists to offer a joint electoral platform similar to his Lega party manifesto, which pledges to "underline and reaffirm common Christian roots, defend national identity, and the supremacy of [national laws] over European laws and directives."

Populist gains expected

Populist parties, especially in Italy, Poland, Hungary and France, expect to make major gains in the May elections for the 750-seat parliament. In France, opinion polls are suggesting Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National is running neck-and-neck with Macron's En Marche party. 

Pollsters are predicting euroskeptic populists will capture a third of the European parliament's 750 seats. In last Sunday's Spanish elections, the right-wing Vox party secured parliament seats, marking the first time an avowedly far-right party has done so since Gen. Francisco Franco's death in 1975.

The populists will fall well short of the kind of parliamentary clout that would allow Salvini and his allies to re-shape the European Union and reassert the pre-eminence of national identity, or even halt deeper integration. But it would give them the opportunity to disrupt integrationist proposals and to complicate the process of appointing a new European Commission following the elections, say analysts.

FILE - Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini ta
FILE - Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini takes a selfie with supporters in Corleone, Sicily, Italy April 25, 2019.

Salvini, guided by Bannon, had hoped to draw together nationalist populists into a continent-wide electoral alliance, but they are unified only when it comes to their disdain for the old establishment politics.On some other key issues, they are divided and the top leaders are deeply competitive with each other. 

Italy's Salvini, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and French politician Marine Le Pen are all eager to be seen as Europe's populist-in-chief. But the Italian deputy prime minister has been pressing other EU member states to take "their fair share" of migrants, helping to relieve Italy, Greece and Spain of the burden. Orban and central European leaders refuse to do so.

Polish nationalists are also deeply skeptical of the warming ties between their western European counterparts and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

No 'normal crisis'

Nonetheless, the populist challenge is shaking up European politics and this month's election is likely to bring that home. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, author of the book After Europe, cautions against people thinking this is a "normal crisis." 

He argues "against those who are convinced that nothing can happen because the European Union is going to stay and the current crisis is a normal one. No, it's a more radical crisis than any other we have ever experienced before." He warns people shouldn't take the European Union for granted, although he doesn't believe it will disintegrate.

For centrists and Europhiles, though, there are grounds for confidence. The Brexit mess has softened some of the euroskepticism of the new populists, none of whom is advocating leaving the bloc. 

And the rise of nationalist populism is also prompting a Europhile reaction — a recent survey across 10 European states by the Pew Research Center found strong support for the EU with a median 74 percent saying it promotes peace, democratic values and prosperity. But more than half worry Brussels still doesn't understand the needs of ordinary citizens.