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Europeans choose new Parliament, with far-right and Russian disinformation both on the rise

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

While we in the U.S. have been focused on our presidential election, and clearly there's a lot to focus on, 2024 is a huge year for elections all around the world. Half of the world's population, some 4 billion people, are voting for new leaders. Later this week, citizens of the European Union will choose a new Parliament. Many of those countries are also holding national elections. The voting comes amid a continued surge of populism in Europe and all over the world. Teri Schultz joins us now from Brussels, the capital of the EU, to talk about this massive voting process. Thanks for being here.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Scott.

DETROW: All right. Twenty-seven countries holding elections at the same time - this sounds like a lot.

SCHUTLZ: It's a lot. It is a lot. Some 373 million people are eligible to vote this week in elections that start in some countries on Thursday, and then they'll all wrap up on Sunday. And each of them is choosing their own members of the 720-seat European Union Parliament, which is done every five years, with seats allocated by population like the U.S. House of Representatives. But in some places, as we mentioned, this coincides with elections for national parliaments and governments. And for example, here in Belgium, which has a notoriously messy political system, they're electing a new national parliament, several regional parliaments and members of the European Parliament all on the same day.

DETROW: That sounds incredibly complicated.

SCHUTLZ: It is complicated, but it's also really important when you consider that after June 9, you'll have a new EU legislature in addition to these new governments in some EU countries. And any of these can single-handedly block proposals at the EU level due to the need for consensus. So it's fair to say that in a week, the political landscape in Europe could look a whole lot different.

DETROW: As best as you can, because I'm sure there's different issues in different places, what are some of the common themes that we are seeing across the EU here?

SCHUTLZ: Yes, there are specific country topics that are important, but when it comes to areas where policies are made at the level of the EU and then will apply to the member countries, that's particularly important in things like budgets, how the common money is spent, or sharing the number of undocumented migrants who need to be resettled, as a particularly thorny example.

DETROW: Is that a key issue in Europe right now? - because it's obviously a key issue here in the U.S. in our upcoming election.

SCHUTLZ: It is. It's very, very divisive here in Europe. And also similar to the U.S., policy over Russia's war on Ukraine is driving a lot of the election debate. And that's because many decisions on help for Ukraine are, as I explained, made at the EU level. And there have been some big changes in the last couple of years - for example, allowing money from the joint EU budget to be used to support Ukraine militarily. That wasn't even possible five years ago. EU policy on climate is up there too, as well as agricultural support and attitudes toward China. And as we mentioned and is sort of hanging over all these issues is this shift in voter support for the far right, which is seen across the bloc.

DETROW: Let's talk more about that. Do we have a sense whether more far-right leaders could be elected to Parliament?

SCHUTLZ: Absolutely. The polls are showing that there will be even a surge, as it's often described, in support for these far-right parties. And there's particular concern about some polls showing that the youth vote is significantly moving to the right. Now, the two largest political groups of lawmakers in Parliament - that's the center-right European People's Party and the Socialists - they'll comfortably remain the two largest groups. But the Greens, which five years ago benefited from young voters, and other left-leaning parties are clearly set to lose seats to the right. And there have already been some far right and populist governments elected in some European countries, which just reinforces that forecast. And until now, it's mainly been Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, who blocks initiatives such as aid for Ukraine or solidarity in resettling asylum-seekers. But he may well have more company after these elections.

DETROW: In the little time we have left, what's the sense of what turnout could be?

SCHUTLZ: Well, some countries require their citizens to vote, so that certainly helps get people to the polls. But I just checked statistics, and last time, in 2019, it was just 50% turnout across the 27 countries. There's been a lot of campaigning, especially with these pro-EU candidates possibly in trouble. So there's a lot of concern about this and also about how disinformation may affect the vote at the last minute. So it will be interesting to see how participation figures pan out.

DETROW: Teri Schultz, thanks so much.

SCHUTLZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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