2019 will be a year, unlike any other. People across Europe head to the polling stations and cast their votes for the next European Parliamentarians, and in turn, the European Commission President.
On top of this, if the UK continues on the path it is heading (at the time of writing), the European Union (EU) will lose its first member state – something many people believe will be a blessing rather than a curse. A reallocation of some of the UK’s seats means that a handful of countries are electing more representatives of the European Parliament than ever before, meanwhile this will be the first time since 1979 that British citizens, at home and abroad, will have no say in the European elections.
These newly-elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will be the first of many new faces to grace the streets of Brussels. They will arrive before the summer recess to familiarise themselves with their new roles. But the question on everyone’s lips is what will the European Parliament look like?
Europe has suffered from the rise of far-right extremism and Euroscepticism over the past few years. Countries are now led by politicians that do not view the European movement as beneficial nor the way forward. These Eurosceptic officials have referred to the elections in May as a referendum between two different “Europes” – of the people and of the elite. Proclaiming attacks on the elite is nothing new, this was already background noise of the 2014 elections – the issue remains that this sentiment has proven to have gotten louder and is drowning out the European ideal. Current predictions are that over half the Parliament will be new, which not only means a certain amount of education needs to happen but also an uncertainty as to where the affiliations will lie.
Reflecting on the last institutional changeover in 2014, we can undoubtedly say that it was a completely different atmosphere. Brexit was a figment of Nigel Farage’s imagination, the Spitzenkandidat process was a new venture by the European Parliament to counter the EU’s legitimacy gap, France did not have the one list system and everyone was listening to Pharrell’s song – which did not encourage the electorate to turn-up for #happyvoting.
Now as we proceed deeper 2019, all bets are off. The status quo has been challenged and Europe is in trouble. Notwithstanding the anti-EU rhetoric appearing in national politicians’ speeches and newspapers, countries are struggling to form or keep a government in power.
While everyone is focused on who will be occupying the big glass building overlooking Place Luxembourg, everyone is turning a blind eye to the Commission, outside of the election of the President. Speculation has already started about who will be returning and some national officials have already thrown their hats in the ring. For example, the current Minister of Justice for Romania (the first country to hold the Council Presidency in this tumultuous year) has voiced his desire to be the future Commissioner for Justice.
This is the first of many new faces vying for a seat at the table. The College of Commissioners will be predominately new, nominated by national governments in conflict or striving to take the fight to the supranational level of the 13th floor of the Berlaymont. With eyes on the European elections, lest not dismiss the power of national governments in the set-up of the new Commission.
As anyone working in the EU bubble knows, the changeover year provides uncertainty, opportunity and excitement – especially for communications and public affairs. Companies and trade associations will be looking to leverage their messages, their positions and their topics and carve out a space for them in the European agenda. And what better time to do that than when Europe is currently experiencing its biggest reshuffle to date?
Public affairs and communications strategies will become all the more important, as regardless of how much support the centre political parties get, there is no denying that more extreme characters will be part of the audience. So, the time to focus on the middle cleavage to win a vote or get a position passed in the College by engaging with the European centre parties is over.
People already working in, or just breaking into policy and communications have a blank slate, a tabula rasa to seize the opportunities created by the institutional changeover but also by the change in the dynamics. Very few people in Brussels can remember a time when the UK did not have a seat at the table, and at times play the moderate voice between France and Germany. Or when right-wing populism had such a stronghold on Europe and where the EU cannot come to agreement on key issues such as migration, budget and security.
Europe has a chance to reinvent itself. Just as populism grew over the last decade, so it seems the new generation of pro-European advocates are gaining momentum. For communications and public affairs professionals, these moments of change are fundamental and can turn the tide on any campaign. 2019 will be an extraordinary year for policy, communications and Europe.