Next weekend’s European Parliament elections are an important exercise in the bloc’s democracy. The second largest democratic contest in the world after India’s, with an estimated 374 million eligible voters, these elections will help shape Europe’s direction over the next five years.

Contrary to popular myth, EU law is not made by the European Commission, which only proposes directives and regulations. It is the Parliament which ‘co-decides’ (with the Council of the EU) a whole range of EU laws in areas such as the Single Market, agriculture, fisheries, energy, environment, data protection, migration, transport and consumer protection.

Europe’s Parliament also helps set the EU agenda, is involved in the Brexit negotiations, takes an active interest in influencing the EU’s foreign policy and speaks out loud and clear in favour of human rights and the rule of law.

It also has an important role in supervising the EU institutions – in 1999 it triggered the downfall of the entire European Commission over a corruption scandal – while its specific approval is required for the appointment of the European Commission President and the other Commissioners.

In the past five years the European Parliament has played an important part in approving 1,100 EU laws, including a ban on single-use plastics, a data-protection regulation with global reach, the capping of the price of mobile phone calls within the EU and the strengthening of the EU’s external borders. It also convinced the Commission to be more transparent about how it runs EU trade negotiations and it has consistently sent out a strong message on the need to tackle climate change.

According to the polls, a number of right-wing populist or eurosceptic parties are expected to make gains in these elections, although the mainstream centrist parties should together still command a large majority. The projected increases for the populists are due to a number of factors, namely a protest vote over migration,  a low voter turnout and economic hardships in a number of countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken on the role of the champion of the EU’s values in this election, has suggested that the poll is a battle for the bloc’s soul between those who believe in Europe and those like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Italy’s Matteo Salvini who want to promote an “illiberal democracy” and return to nationalism. While there is some truth in this, it is also true that the so-called ‘populist’ parties are divided among themselves (migration is probably the main issue they have in common), and many of them remain in favour of the EU and what it stands for but are not keen on further integration.

Still, President Macron deserves credit for telling a positive, forward-looking story about the EU, for taking on the populists directly and for coming up with concrete proposals on reform of the bloc. He is the only EU leader to take such an initiative and hopefully will continue to play a leading role in shaping Europe’s future over the years.

In Malta, the polls indicate that the Labour Party will increase its share of the popular vote and gain a seat at the expense of the Nationalist Party. This despite the government turning a blind eye to very serious corruption allegations and an erosion of the rule of law over the past few years.

There is no doubt that the still booming economy, a poor electoral campaign by the Nationalist Party and a PN leader who has failed to make much inroads among voters will work in Labour’s favour, but we do not believe that the Labour government’s poor record in good governance and rule of law – two fundamental European values – should be ignored by voters. We urge voters to choose candidates whose track record shows they truly believe in European values and to also consider members of the Democratic Party and Alternattiva Demokratika, as well as independent candidates, among their preferences. Abstaining instead would only risk boosting the candidates of the far right.

A disappointing aspect of the campaign in Malta is that European issues were hardly discussed by the two main parties. We would like to know what their views are on issues such as climate change, a common migration policy, the future of Europe, a more integrated European defence policy, dealing with an assertive Russia, fake news on social media, Brexit, the move away from multilateralism by the US and the integration of third party nationals.

Instead we had Labour claiming the election is a choice between Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia and a PN which made abortion – something the EU has no competence over – a central theme of its campaign, which clearly lacked focus and sent out an incoherent message.

We hope voter turnout will once again be high, showing that the electorate fervently believes in the EU project, and that when the election is over our MEPs will try and bridge their divide and work together in Malta and Europe’s common interest.  

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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