The EU votes. It has never been more important.

It is tempting to dismiss the European Parliament elections as the most important elections that don't actually matter.

Hundreds of millions of voters in 27 nations will turn out this weekend to vote, but the European Parliament is the least powerful of the European Union's institutions. It is often derided as a talking shop. Its 720 members have limited powers, and while some are rising stars, others are retired politicians or even criminals.

But the European Union has never been more important in providing tangible benefits to its citizens, or to the world in being a force for stability and prosperity, since its birth as an economic alliance almost seventy years ago. The Parliament that emerges from these elections, however weak it may be, will serve as a brake or accelerator for the crucial policies that will help shape Europe's immediate future.

In the five years since the last election, the bloc has jointly purchased Covid-19 vaccines and launched a massive economic stimulus program to recover from the pandemic. He sanctioned Russia and paid to arm and rebuild Ukraine. He abandoned Russian energy imports and negotiated new sources of natural gas. It has revised its migration system. It has adopted ambitious climate policies.

But in that time, the EU has also been criticized for failing to heed calls for greater accountability and transparency and for promoting policies that favor urban elites over farmers and rural voters. The loss of sovereignty to a dark center of power in Brussels, manned by technocrats, does not please many Europeans either.

Enraged by Covid-era politics and the arrival of more migrants, and desperate for a sense of control and identity, many voters are expected to move to the right. The other two right-wing parties running in this election are poised to make significant gains.

This shift is also caused by some of the same culture war issues surrounding gender politics, especially in Eastern Europe, as in the United States and other parts of the developed world.

In this context, the European elections will produce a new compromise with the political extremes. It seems likely that centrist parties will have to collaborate with the far right to achieve results.

If the projections are right, then Parliament may have more difficulty carrying out even the limited functions it has – approving EU legislation, the bloc's budget and the EU's top leadership positions. Smaller, more disruptive players will become more powerful. And the far right itself is fragmenting, leading to further instability in the European political process.

“Normally, these elections would be of second or third order of importance,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at consultancy Eurasia Group. “But the vote matters because of the context.”

The European Union grows through the crisis. At the heart of this unique experiment in supranational governance is the idea that European countries can achieve more together than each alone.

However, the way the bloc works is based on an inherent tension between the EU's joint institutions based primarily in Brussels, primarily its executive arm, the European Commission, and national governments in each of the 27 member states.

The Commission sees itself as the custodian of a vision for a federal Europe, pushing its members towards “an ever closer union”, according to its founding document. National governments oscillate between empowering and funding the Commission, and trying to control it, blaming it for failures and taking credit for successes.

This weekend's elections will send a strong signal to European leaders which side of the scale citizens want to put their finger on. Every consolidation of power by Brussels tends to be followed by some popular reaction, making European integration a process of two steps forward and one step back.

The pandemic was a case in point. After a brutal first wave that left Europeans without sufficient access to vaccines, the EU organized the purchase of billions of vaccine doses and Europeans quickly emerged from strict lockdowns.

In many ways the response was considered a success. But it has also generated deep distrust of Brussels among voters, especially on the right, who are wary of government excesses and may also be skeptical of vaccines.

Vaccine procurement contracts remain secret and there is a widespread feeling that the EU has ordered too many doses and wasted taxpayers' money. (The New York Times sued the commission in a freedom of information case in the European Court over documents related to these contracts.)

As a deep economic crisis gripped countries and unleashed soaring inflation rates in the wake of the pandemic, the EU persuaded its members to borrow money together to finance a vast stimulus plan. This sort of Rubicon – borrowing together – opened up new avenues and probably prevented the EU from collapsing into a deeper and more prolonged recession.

But it was also unpopular among the bloc's wealthier nations who are the underwriters of that debt and net contributors to the bloc's spending. This has also infuriated right-wing voters in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, who feel the EU is taking too much away from them and giving back too little.

The next test was Ukraine. When Russia launched a full-scale invasion, the EU sanctioned Russia in concert with the US and other allies. It severed ties with much of the Russian economy, eventually abandoning it as a source of energy – and in the process giving up cheap access to electricity.

Today, although the United States remains Ukraine's indispensable supporter, the EU is sending billions of euros to Kiev for weapons and reconstruction and has offered it a future in its ranks as a full member of the EU.

For voters who feel that supporting Ukraine has come at too high a price, and for others who are pro-Russia, the war has become another pull factor for the far right.

Following such crises, national governments usually try to regain some of the authority they had ceded to the EU to avoid calamities. This reaction is strengthened by nationalist and nativist parties who suffer from the loss of sovereignty in Brussels.

“The problem is that all the main areas where the EU faces problems of its citizens now – competitiveness, migration, security – are issues on the edge of the EU's competence,” Rahman said.

“These are areas that define state power, and it is very difficult to convince countries to relinquish sovereignty and build a collective and coherent European response.”

The EU political mainstream – including the European Commission – has sought to overcome this trend, for example, by toning down green policies to satisfy farmers who have staged sometimes violent protests across Europe this year.

But the EU continues to push for greater coordination where it sees a new crisis looming – joint defense – an area at which it is not very good.

Another thing the EU isn't good at is foreign policy, but, ready or not, these elections will affect the bloc's ability to find its voice in an intensely fragmented global order.

A Trump presidency could erode American investments in NATO, push for quicker peace in Ukraine on Russia's terms and bring the United States more aggressively behind Israel.

The EU would struggle to maintain a hard line against Russia if the United States cut its support for Ukraine. Its promotion of international rules would also face challenges elsewhere, including in the Middle East where it is a secondary player.

More generally, with a stronger far right in the European Parliament, Trump-aligned leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, would move front and center.

With nationalist parties in coalition governments in seven of its 27 members, the EU could end up moving closer to the Trump-led United States. Its own aspirations for unity to make European power felt in the world would be put to the test.

“I think we should be ready to respond to drastic changes coming from the United States, but we may not be able to do so, especially because member states are not ready,” said Shahin Vallée, senior member of the German Council on Foreign Relations. .

“My basic scenario is that, if Trump is elected, European leaders will individually rush to the White House to do exactly what they did last time: beg for favors from Trump.”

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