Netherlands launch four days of European elections

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 7th June 2024.

The Netherlands has initiated four days of European elections across 27 nations, setting the stage for a crucial democratic exercise. A total of 500 million Europeans are set to vote in this election between Thursday and Sunday (9 June) to elect the new European Parliament from the 27 EU member states.

The voting officially kicked off on Thursday morning at 7.30am. An exit poll projected turnout at 46.8 per cent, up from the 41.8 per cent of voters who cast ballots in the previous election five years ago. The highest turnout dates back to the beginnings of the European Parliament (1979), when almost six out of 10 Dutch citizens went to the polls.  

Estonia had already commenced its voting period, which spans six days starting from Monday. However, the Netherlands stands out as the only EU country to begin its single-day vote so early.

Ireland will follow suit today, Friday, with the rest of the EU nations participating over the weekend. The results of the elections will be announced on Sunday night, culminating in a Europe-wide revelation after all member states have completed voting.

The EU elections represent the world’s second-largest democratic exercise, trailing only behind India’s elections in terms of scale. With almost 400 million voters across the EU, the electorate will select 720 members of the European Parliament, spanning from the Arctic circle to the borders of Africa and Asia. The outcome of these elections will shape policies on global issues ranging from climate change and defence to migration and international relations with major players like China and the United States.

Since the last European elections in 2019, geopolitical dynamics have shifted significantly. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has brought conflict to the fringe of the EU, underscoring the importance of the union’s role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. Ukraine, aspiring to join the EU, further underscores the geopolitical complexities at play.

Despite being an EU founding member, the Netherlands has witnessed growing dissatisfaction with EU policies among its populace. Research from the Clingendael think tank indicates that, while the majority of Dutch citizens believe in remaining within the bloc, there is also a prevalent sentiment for greater self-sufficiency.

The allocation of MEPs across member states varies based on population size, ranging from six seats for smaller nations like Malta, Luxembourg, and Cyprus to 96 seats for Germany. Following the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU in 2020, the number of MEPs decreased from 751 to 705, with some seats reallocated to other member states. MEPs play a crucial role in shaping EU legislation, covering a wide array of areas such as climate, banking, agriculture, fisheries, security, and justice. Additionally, they hold sway over the EU budget, which is integral to implementing European policies, including aid provisions to countries like Ukraine.

Following the election, MEPs will convene to elect their President during the first plenary session scheduled from 16th to 19th July. Subsequently, likely in September, they will nominate the President of the European Commission, based on a proposal put forth by member states. In the 2019 elections, Ursula von der Leyen secured a narrow victory to become the first woman to lead the European Commission.

Italy’s Draghi: ‘the man who came in from the cold’

The contest for the top job in the next EU Commission has been painted as a two-horse race between current Commission chief von der Leyen and EU Italian stallion, or former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi.

Almost half of the respondents in a new poll considered both good picks to lead the next College of Commissioners, but placed the German slightly behind (47%) the Italian (49%) in the hearts and minds of Europeans. Similarly, although one-third (33%) of those surveyed did not favour Draghi for the post, antipathy levels rose to 37% for von der Leyen.

The survey, conducted by market and social research firm Polling Europe in the last week of May, is based on over 5,000 complete interviews distributed proportionally to the population of the 27 EU countries.

Respondents were polled on their thoughts on Commissioners Nicolas Schmit and Thierry Breton in addition to von der Leyen and Draghi, though the former pair polled 37 and 39 respectively.

Draghi’s bid for the Commission is at the moment purely theoretical while von der Leyen is actively running as the lead candidate for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), expected to win the largest number of seats in the European Parliament after the elections.

Von der Leyen fared better among respondents from the countries of central eastern (53%) and northern (54%) Europe, with a good reception in Spain (56%) – despite socialists controlling the government there, the EPP’s main opponent at this election.

Von der Leyen failed to glean more than half (45%) approval rates in her native Germany, though she nudges Draghi, who polled at 41% there. The preference for the current Commission chief sank to 29% among the French, who preferred homegrown champion Thierry Breton (40%). Support for Draghi came from southern Europe (59%), boosted by strong approval in his native Italy (68%).

Geographical and political balance are important factors in determining the EU top jobs package after the elections: re-selection of von der Leyen as Commission chief could be mitigated by the appointment as European Council president of a socialist coming from Europe’s south such as former Portugal’s prime minister Antonio Costa. Von der Leyen can rely on strong backing from those surveyed who will vote for traditional parties: Christian-democrats, socialists, and liberals. Green voters seem to like her too, despite the Greens not having backed her appointment in 2019. On the other hand, von der Leyen’s approval rating collapses at the extreme right and left sides of the hemicycle. If this support is confirmed at the polling station, von der Leyen would be the best choice.

Draghi appears to have slightly less support among the three traditional groups but more cross-party backing overall. This suggests Draghi might be a preferable option if no clear majority arises after the election, and EU leaders prefer to appoint a less divisive figure.

12 EU states push for progress on Ukraine, Moldova’s accession

Ministers from 12 EU countries have called for the next steps in Ukraine and Moldova’s EU membership bids to be opened before the end of June, when the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán is due to take on the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

In a letter addressed to Belgian foreign minister Hadja Lahbib, whose government currently presides over the Council, the ministers say that swift progress on both Kyiv and Chișinău’s accession process would “boost morale and further the work on reforms in these countries.” The letter, first reported on by Euractiv, was spearheaded by Czechia, according to diplomatic sources. It was also signed by foreign or European affairs ministers from Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Portugal, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Slovenia, Romania, and Slovakia.

Whilst it has not officially signed the letter, France is also committed to “do everything” it can to “hold the first intergovernmental conference before the end of the month,” according to a source from the Élysée. The 12 capitals want member states to adopt the negotiating frameworks – the roadmap for accession talks – and to kick off negotiations by convening the first intergovernmental conferences with both countries by the end of this month. Both steps require the unanimous blessing of all 27 EU member states, but according to diplomats, Hungary is currently blocking both decisions.

The opening of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova was approved in principle by the EU’s 27 countries back in December, with Hungary abstaining. But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has consistently voiced opposition to swiftly progressing on Ukraine’s accession, citing concerns over the levels of corruption in the country and the lack of measures to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority in the border region of Transcarpathia. With Orbán’s government due to take on the presidency of the Council of the EU from July – giving it the power to set the agenda and chair ministerial meetings – ministers are fearful that the talks could be further derailed unless Hungary concedes by the end of June. It comes as exasperation with Orbán’s government grows as it continues to veto key decisions on military aid to Kyiv.

The 12 ministers insist that given the “results achieved and the ongoing reform efforts in both Ukraine and Moldova,” it is now “time to move forward.”

Biden calls for solidarity with Ukraine at D-Day anniversary

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined world leaders in France on Thursday to commemorate the D-Day invasion and seek more Western aid to combat Russia’s invasion. Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena, attended the 80th anniversary events in Normandy with US President Joe Biden and European leaders who have supported Kyiv’s efforts in the war. He will meet with French officials in Paris later today, Friday. Ukraine is fighting to hold back a recent Russian push in eastern areas, including the border regions of Kharkiv and Donetsk. The offensive seeks to exploit Kyiv’s shortages of ammunition and troops along the roughly 1,000-kilometer front line.

President Biden marked the 80th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday by pledging “we will not walk away” from the defence of Ukraine and allow Russia to threaten more of Europe. “To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators, is simply unthinkable,” he said during a ceremony at the American cemetery in Normandy. “If we were to do that, it means we’d be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches.” D-Day was the largest amphibious assault in history, and Biden called it a “powerful illustration of how alliances, real alliances make us stronger.” He said that was “a lesson that I pray we Americans never forget.”

Macron gives out honour awards to war veterans

French President Emmanuel Macron awarded the Legion of Honour to 14 US veterans and a British female veteran. Among the Americans was Edward Berthold, a pilot who carried out his three missions over France in May 1944, before taking part in an operation in Saint-Lo, in Normandy, on D-Day. He flew 35 combat missions in all during World War II. Macron also bestowed the Legion of Honour on 103-year-old Christian Lamb, the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral who was studying in Normandy in 1939 when her father called her back to London. There, Lamb created detailed maps that guided the crews of landing craft on D-Day. The French president bent down to Lamb in a wheelchair, pin the medal and kiss her on both cheeks, describing her as one of the “heroes in the shadows”.

Borrell calls for independent investigation into school attack

An Israeli strike early Thursday on a school sheltering displaced Palestinians in central Gaza killed at least 33 people, including 12 women and children, according to local health officials. The Israeli military said that Hamas militants were operating from within the school. It was the latest instance of mass casualties among Palestinians trying to find refuge as Israel expands its offensive. A day earlier, the military announced a new ground and air assault in central Gaza, pursuing Hamas militants it says have regrouped there.

EU High Representative Josep Borrell wrote on X: “We need an ‘independent investigation’ into the attack on the UNRWA school in Gaza, adding, “The news coming from Gaza continually demonstrates that violence and suffering are still the only reality for hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.” He said the latest “terrible news must be the subject of an independent investigation, in line with the latest decision of the International Court of Justice.  A lasting ceasefire is the only way forward to protect civilians and achieve the immediate release of all hostages. Both parties must immediately accept the three-phase plan proposed by the United States.”

Houthis’ operations against ships in the Israeli port of Haifa

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi group said it had launched two joint military operations with the Iraqi Islamic Resistance against ships in the Israeli port of Haifa. “The first targeted two ships carrying military equipment in the port of Haifa, while the second targeted a ship violating the ban on entry into the port,” Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said on TV, as Al Masirah reports.

Photo: John Thys, AFP

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