French parties are increasingly adopting the p-word while Italy is concerned about taxes
More than 370 million people will be eligible to vote in the European elections. But as they enter the polling booth they will have very different issues on their mind, as this survey of the six biggest countries conducted by the Europa group of newspapers reveals.
France – We are all protectionists now
It used to be a dirty word in an open country that is part of the world’s biggest single market. But French parties are increasingly adopting the p-word in this campaign, even if they don’t always say it out loud.
On the far left, La France Insoumise supports “solidarity protectionism” and proposes the idea of a “kilometric carbon tax”: the further the product is shipped, the more it is taxed. The green fringe advocate something similar – a carbon tax at the border of the EU and restrictions on imports from countries that do not permit free union association.
Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally advocates an “intelligent protectionism” that would support the national economy through the restoration of customs duties. The socialists too are revising their position on protectionism, a result of years of social dumping and market disruption. “We assume a form of protectionism and put trade policy at the service of ecology and the fight against inequality,” says Raphaël Glucksmann, leader of the influential Place Publique movement, who heads a common list with the PS.
Even Emmanuel Macron’s movement seems to be converted. Admittedly, the term “protectionism” is not used in the program of the presidential party. But “protection” is, with those of “progress” and “freedom”, the key words of the head of list Nathalie Loiseau. And the campaign slogan is: “A Europe that protects.”
Like the Macronists, the Republican party (LR) is reluctant to use the word “protectionism”. But their draft program defends customs protection, and recommends putting in place, in the face of foreign products, “a double preference, European and French, on the model of the ‘Buy American Act’ by assuming to give priority to our companies and our jobs”. LR wants to reserve 50% of public contracts for local companies.
If this idea, initially borne by the opponents of free trade, eventually became practically consensual, it is because the European construction is perceived as the establishment of a large market that would ultimately promote social insecurity, economic and ecological.
“Protectionism has been constantly associated since the 19th century with the idea of increasing customs duties to protect oneself,” says Olivier Dard, professor of contemporary history at the Sorbonne. “But is this really protectionism that we are looking at today, or a broader idea of protection that goes way beyond simply ideas of tariffs?” Alexandre Lemarié, of Le Monde
Italy – The north-south divide
“We pay too many taxes,” laments Klodian Qoshja, manager of a leather processing company near the northern city of Vicenza. “Here you have to work 16 hours a day to get an entrepreneur salary.”
Tax is a dirty word in Italy’s industrial north, which far outperforms the south in the wealth it generates. Northern provinces are determined to secure greater fiscal autonomy, but even though their great champion, the (formerly Northern) League party is now in government in Rome, their appeals have had little effect.
“Autonomy will be achieved,” Salvini continues to repeat at his speeches, although his coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, are less enthusiastic. Thus far the League has not suffered for not delivering on one of its core objectives.
In this part of Italy, support for the League runs at more than 40%, dipping to about 30% nationwide – still ahead of the other European election hopefuls.
“The current picture plays in the League’s favour because the topic is much discussed in the regions where autonomy is demanded, while there is a cloak of silence over the other regions,” says Gianfranco Viesti, professor of applied economics at the University of Bari.
“Votes can be maintained by promising autonomy in one part of Italy, but you can avoid losing them in other parts of Italy by not talking about it,” he adds. “It is a party that speaks two different languages in two areas of the country.”
The village where Qoshja has his factory, San Pietro Mussolino, witnessed the highest turnout at a referendum on regional autonomy in 2017, and almost all voters voted in favour.
“We have always had the speech of autonomy in our blood, even before they talked about it,” says Graziano Rancan, a bar owner. “We have paid so many contributions, now we continue to pay contributions but there is not enough money left to develop what we have lacked”.
Paolo Negro Marcigaglia, who runs an organic food company just one block from Qoshja’s leather factory, sees no other options: “We make an appeal to (League leader Matteo) Salvini to keep this promise that the League has been making for decades now.”
“I feel a bit like a worker in a company,” says Marcigaglia, making a metaphor about the state and taxes. “A company in which the owner every year takes away his dividends without investing anything.” Cecilia Butini of La Stampa
UK – The paradox of Brexit
Once it became clear that Britons would have to vote in the 2019 elections, despite having voted to leave Europe almost three years ago, the campaign very quickly became a mirror of the 2016 referendum, a microcosm of the exhausting battle for Brexit.
As the party overseeing the debacle which has seen the UK stumble through almost three years without a departure plan anyone can agree on, Theresa May’s Conservatives are expected to receive a solid kicking, with even many party activists saying they will vote for other parties.
At the last elections in 2014, when the Eurosceptic mood was also strong, the Conservatives won only 24% of the vote. Polling for this month’s equivalent has them on as little a 13%. They could easily place fourth – or worse.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is polling marginally better, but at little more than 20% – not the sort of level a would-be government should expect.
Labour go into the elections still trying to please both leave and remain supporters by promising only to back a second Brexit referendum as a possible option if no constructive deal can be reached. The party risks annoying voters on both sides of the divide.
Their campaign has so far been mainly marked by a bitter tussle over the wording on the second referendum pledge, which saw Corbyn emerge triumphant over his pro-People’s Vote deputy, Tom Watson, to the intense anguish of remain backers.
Amid this disquiet with the two main parties, who will benefit? The short answer is: the Brexit party. Nigel Farage’s brand new successor-to-Ukip has formally existed for only a few weeks, but is topping polls at about 30% or more, and has unveiled dozens of candidates ranging from former Conservatives to businesspeople and an ex-Marxist.
As ever, Farage is presenting a message to the public that is both coherent and vehement – Brexit is being betrayed – as well as being distinctly light on details.
Farage quit Ukip last year over the party’s hard right, anti-Islam stance under Gerard Batten, and his new venture seems to have well and truly stolen Ukip’s thunder – after intially strong poll results Ukip has slipped to below 5%, which if confirmed would usher in the party’s likely end as a mainstream force. And remember, under Farage Ukip topped the UK’s vote in 2014.
If, as some bill it, the European elections are seen as some sort of proxy second Brexit referendum, the coalescing of leave support around Farage’s group could be an advantage when contrasted with the splits among remainers.
Competing for this vote will be the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, as well as Change UK – the new party set up by 11 former Labour and Tory MPs. Each of them are polling at close to 10%.
What will it all mean come the results? No one really knows, beyond one thing – it’s very unlikely to heal any divisions. Peter Walker, the Guardian
Germany – Merkel’s last stand
The European elections are perceived in Germany mainly as a vote on national affairs, as a small Bundestag election, so to speak. This year, it is a litmus test of whether Angela Merkel’s grand coalition will be able to hang on through the full legislative period to 2021. Or whether it might collapse early.
For the first time in almost 20 years, Merkel will be absent from the campaign, airbrushed from posters and social media. The elections are the first big test for her successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who must prove she can lead her party into battle. Poll numbers are weak; the party is nervous.
For the SPD, grudging junior coalition partner, the vote is all about whether to stick it out in government – a role that since 2013 has given it some executive power, at the expense of popularity. If the SPD clearly loses its support, it will be harder for them to stay in government. The left wing is pushing for the opposition role to sharpen the profile of the party there. The bar for the European elections is quite high. In the last election, the well-known leading candidate Martin Schulz, then president of the European parliament, gained more than six percentage points for his party – and presented a respectable result at 27.3%.
The SPD is launching Katarina Barley as national top candidate this year. According to surveys, Barley is the best-known among the top candidates in Germany, ahead of leading AFD candidate Jörg Meuthen and Manfred Weber of the CSU-CDU, who wants to become president of the European commission. Only one in four knows him. It is a heavy burden for Weber that the rightwing populist AfD leaves the Union man behind in terms of popularity.
For the Greens, it is important to convert good poll results into electoral success. The party has been on the up for months; a decent European result will boost the party as it fights regional elections that offer the promise of coalition power.
Big European issues are of little concern. Some voters tell campaigners they are concerned about dumping, about tax avoidance, copyright, security and the rise of rightwing populists. But most see this as just another national election, albeit one fought on a bigger stage. Cerstin Gammelin, Süddeutsche Zeitung
Spain – Once more unto the polls
Spain is well practised at heading to the polls. At the end of April, the country held its third general election in under four years, a landmark vote that saw the ruling socialist workers’ party (PSOE) win the most votes but fall short of a majority, the traditional People’s party (PP) humiliated and the breakthrough of the far-right Vox party.
Those results are likely to exert a significant influence on what happens on 26 May, when Spaniards vote in the European elections, but also in regional and municipal ones.
The PSOE will be hoping for a post-general election bounce that will see them win the vote and cement the party’s place as the resurgent party of the European centre-left.
Equally interesting will be what happens on the right. The advent of Vox, which won 24 seats in congress last month, pushed both the PP and the centre-right Citizens party further to the right as the three parties competed for voters.
But the move backfired – particularly for the PP. After his strategy of cosying up to Vox failed to pay off, the PP’s leader, Pablo Casado, is trying to reclaim the centre-ground and has begun denouncing the party as a far-right outfit.
Citizens, meanwhile, is doing its best to stake its claim to that centre-ground and to portray itself as the true party of opposition.
Vox is also recalibrating its approach. Although the party picked up 10.3% of the vote in April – wildly up on the 0.2% it took in the 2016 general election – it did not do as well as had been predicted.
The party, which has followed the populist tactic of favouring social media over traditional media, thinks the approach may have hurt its ability to reach older voters.
Mindful that the great majority of Spaniards are pro-European and still regard the country’s entry into the EU as a landmark moment in the country’s history, Vox is taking a different line to many of the continent’s far-right parties.
“We believe in Europe because we are Europe,” says its European election manifesto.
But it says the EU is in crisis because it is on hock to “certain ideologies and political commitments that have seen ‘the construction of a Europe’ outside the true Europe”. Sam Jones, the Guardian
Poland – Gay rights and child protection
“Hands off our children,” the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, intoned in March as the campaign for European parliamentary elections started.
But the declaration is proving uncomfortable. Kaczyński’s intended target was the LGBT community. Awkwardly for Kaczyński, it is the Catholic church, a great ally to the PiS, which has been accused of being a far greater threat to children than the gay community.
Since it came to power in 2015, PiS has sought to rally its conservative base with sound and fury about attempts to introduce more liberal sexual education in Warsaw and other cities run by the opposition.
It seized on statements by the likes of Paweł Rabiej, vice-president of Warsaw, who does not hide the fact that he is gay, who has said he is in favour of the legalisation of gay marriage and gay adoption in Poland. One PiS politician running for election, Elżbieta Kruk, vowed that Poland should be an LGBT-free land.
In another episode, an activist was arrested for hanging posters with an image of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo in a church in Płock. She faces two years in prison for insulting religious feelings.
But the moral onslaught did not change the poll ratings. And a backlash was brewing. Last weekend, Tomasz Sekielski, broadcast a film with fresh revelations about paedophilia in the Polish Catholic church.
The film accused the church in Poland of covering up cases of child sexual abuse by priests, and transferring perpetrators to other parishes. Almost 8 million people have seen it.
The ruling party appear to be floundering, dismissing the paedophile-priests as isolated cases while at the same time raising penalties for paedophilia to up to 30 years in prison.
The opposition promised a new commission to investigate paedophilia in the Polish church.
All of this is a prelude to national elections in the autumn. Defeat for PiS in May will damage its chances of maintaining its hold on government later in the year. A sudden threat from a new constellation on the far right could erode its popularity further.
Poland waits with bated breath. Bartosz T. Wieliński of Gazeta Wyborcza
This article is part of a six-newspaper collaboration called Europa in which work is reported by one or more newspaper and shared for publication with all. The six papers are The Guardian, Le Monde, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, La Vanguardia, La Stampa and Gazeta Wyborcza