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What are the key issues for voters in the European elections?

In World
June 09, 2024

Hundreds of millions of people across the 27 countries of the European Union are casting their vote in the European Parliament elections.

Here are the top issues influencing voters’ decisions.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin demolished the post-Cold War security consensus in Europe with his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In response to the invasion, the EU and the West imposed multiple rounds of sanctions on Russia and mobilized billions of euros of financial and military aid for Ukraine.

Economic and military support for Ukraine is still popular in the EU, according to a Eurobarometer poll taken about three months ago, with public opinion at 70% for financial aid and 60% for arms.

Hosting people who fled the war – over 4 million of them within the EU – is also a popular policy, with 83% in favour.

Another key consequence of the war has been to highlight the decades of defence budget cuts in the EU. EU countries, notably Germany, have substantially boosted spending since the Russian attack in response.

An EU-wide survey from the parliament in April found 31% of the public want defence and security addressed during the election campaign.

Cost of Living

The economic fallout of the Ukraine war on energy and food prices over the past few years has been immense, compounding the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic on the public coffers and driving inflation.

Some 31% of people polled three months ahead of elections want the EU to support their national economy, while 33% of people want the EU to tackle poverty.

The European Central Bank (ECB) brought years of zero and negative interest rates to an end in July 2022 so as to bring down inflation, which had risen to record highs.

There have been 10 successive hikes, placing borrowers under pressure at the same time as high inflation ate into people’s savings.

Inflation for 2024 is now predicted to fall to 2.7%, but despite the improvement, voters are still concerned about the cost of living. Food prices come high on the list: to take one example, in September 2023 the price of olive oil was 75% higher than in January 2021.

Rent is also increasing in the bloc. Between the last quarter of 2022 and 2023, rents in the EU increased by 3.0%.

Climate change

The European Parliament election in 2019 saw the centre-left and centre-right cede votes to liberals, the far right and parties that campaigned on stricter climate and environmental policies.

This resulted in the EU pursuing major climate initiatives including the European Climate Law in 2021 that made the bloc’s target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for 2050 legally binding.

While the public still wants action on climate – with support for this at 27% according to Eurobarometer polling – parties may be reluctant to commit to new climate change policies as voters prioritize the economy and defence.

The backlash to environmental policies evident in the farmer-citizen movement in the Netherlands and major demonstrations from farmers elsewhere so far in 2024 also show the political risks facing parties heading into the elections.

Migration

A perennial polarizing issue for European elections, public concern about migrants and refugees seeking asylum is shaping public attitudes to immigration.

Public polling calling for migration and asylum to be addressed in the European election averages across the EU at 24%, and is highest in Malta, the Netherlands and Ireland at 50%, 48% and 42%.

People crossing EU borders without valid papers reached nearly 380,000 in 2023, the highest number since 2016, according to EU border agency Frontex.

Asylum applications usually follow such arrivals and subsequently applications in the EU are at a seven-year high.

More than 1.14 million people applied in 2023, the highest since the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) reported.

There are also 4.2 million people hosted in the bloc fleeing the war in Ukraine under a separate emergency EU programme.

Parties on the centre-left and centre-right have in their campaigns highlighted a wide-ranging reform of the bloc’s migration rules called the EU Asylum and Migration Pact.

But far-right nationalist parties have seized on the issue in their campaigns and say it will not fix the problem.

France’s far-right National Rally, led by Jordan Bardella, has heavily criticized the migration pact and called on the French public to vote against President Emmanuel Macron, who backed the agreement, in the upcoming elections.

The far right

The rise of far-right parties in the polls has become an election issue in its own right, with other mainstream parties in their campaigns issuing regular warnings about voting for their rivals.

The far right is not homogenous however and it is not clear whether the parties share enough common ground across all the issues to actually work together within one of the European Parliament’s political groupings.

For instance, the Identity and Democracy (ID) grouping recently kicked out Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), partly due to controversial statements by the AfD’s top candidate in the elections.

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