The fear of being torn apart

Estonia before the EP elections

In Estonia the European elections will be a test of nerve following March’s general election. In contrast to the top-down eurosceptism seen in the workshop of illiberalism, this is the first EP election in which Estonia is experiencing the emergence of a major Eurosceptic player – and this in the midst of ongoing coalition negotiations following March’s general election.

Estonia traditionally has six seats in the European Parliament but will gain one more if Brexit goes ahead. Until now, the European elections have been rather anaemic affairs only livened up by independent wild card candidates attracting protest votes. This time around, they come less than three months after the parliamentary elections on 3 March. Right now however, nobody seems to be thinking ahead to 26 May as the suspense around ongoing coalition negotiations holds most attention.

The European elections have mostly been a lottery for launching senior politicians into lucrative jobs.

Contrary to forecasts, the senior partner in the previous coalition, the Centre Party, came second in the national elections after the neoliberal Reform Party. The far-right EKRE made the biggest gains, more than doubling their seats and taking third place, while the governing Social Democrats and conservative Pro Patria both suffered losses. In previous years, all major parties have supported EU membership and European issues have received little attention. The European elections have mostly been a lottery for launching half a dozen senior politicians into lucrative jobs.

Can the centre hold?

This time, things may be different. First of all, there is now a major eurosceptic player on the scene. EKRE ran on a platform of pushing back against Brussels, subordinating the judiciary, reversing the legalization of same-sex partnerships, fighting non-existent immigration and withdrawing government support for Vikerkaar. While the Centre Party has a eurosceptic past (indeed, it campaigned against Estonia’s accession to the EU), it has changed face over time and caucuses together with Estonia’s Reform Party in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).

Second, the European elections will likely be seen as a major test for the public’s support of whichever coalition emerges from the ongoing negotiations. If the Reform Party fails to form a coalition, or EKRE is admitted to the government, voters may punish the liberal parties, while support for EKRE may grow.

Update by author on 7 May 2019

Meanwhile, the new government of CP, EKRE and Pro Patria took office on April 29th, and the new EKRE speaker’s first step was to remove the EU flags from the White Hall of the Parliamentary palace.

First published on 23 April 2019 at Eurozine.

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Mood of the Union

The series Mood of the Union collects articles on all 28 EU member states. The series is supported by ERSTE Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy.

In the Mood of the Union, partner editors of Eurozine from across the continent, together with further journalists and analysts, will be reporting on attitudes towards the elections and what is at stake at the national level. The aim is to provide a more detailed glimpse than one would usually catch from the bird’s-eye view of national media. The series is curated by Agnieszka Rosner and edited by contributing editor Ben Tendler.

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