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On 20 May 2024, THE CIVICS Innovation HubVisegrad Insight, and the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) joined forces to discuss scenarios for the outcomes of the upcoming June 2024 EP elections and host a political debate between Bulgarian MEP candidates.

Read the event agenda here.

The first part of the discussion, inspired by Visegrad Insight’s year-long project, centred around the possible outcomes of European elections as seen through the lens of several intriguing scenarios that illustrate the complex and unpredictable nature of political dynamics. The conversation kicked off by analysing the potential shift of the European Parliament towards the far right, raising questions about the balance of power and the possible emergence of new political kingmakers, particularly the European People’s Party (EPP). Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of ECFR, presented data analysis on public opinion polls conducted in twelve EU countries, revealing key drivers of voter motivations and fears, such as economic crises, war, climate change, and migration.

Interestingly, this data analysis highlighted that migration, often portrayed as a critical issue by the far right, is not the primary concern for most European citizens. Instead, economic issues, particularly in southern European countries, and the war, especially in frontline states like Poland and the Baltic countries, dominate public concerns. Another interesting observation is that the far right’s agenda seems to be evolving, now aiming to reform the EU from within rather than seeking its outright dismantlement.

The scenario planning exercise, as described by Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, and as reflected in a recently released report, presents four potential futures, each with varying degrees of influence and outcomes for different political factions. This exercise aims to map out the possibilities, from moderate changes to extreme shifts in the political landscape. It underscores the importance of strategic foresight and public debate in shaping the future of Europe, learning from past events like Brexit, which caught many unprepared for its consequences.

© Gergana Pavlova

According to Przybylski, the upcoming elections are the most critical of our lifetime, given the ongoing fragmentation of the political centre and the rise of more diverse, albeit polarised, representation. This shift presents challenges for EU decision-making amid turbulent times, requiring nuanced and robust democratic engagement to navigate the complex political terrain.

The conversation also touched on the broader implications of the EP elections, emphasising the necessity of reinforcing democratic processes and institutions to fulfil the promise of European power. Five years ago, as Przybylski put it, the notion of a “geopolitical Europe” might have seemed ambitious, yet the unique democratic security that the EU provides makes it an attractive project nowadays. Historically, the European Parliament has served as a voice for democratic consciousness, influencing agendas related to rule of law, human rights, and geopolitical issues. As the EU faces new challenges, it must continue to leverage this role to navigate its strategic agenda effectively.

© Gergana Pavlova

Garvan Walshe, founder of Unhack Democracy and our third panellist, explored the evolving role of right-wing parties in the European political landscape. He highlighted a division within the nationalist right, exacerbated by Brexit’s failures and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This split has given rise to a new right-wing agenda, led by figures like Georgia Meloni, which seeks a more unified, right-wing Europe rather than a return to loose cooperation between member states. This shift presents a challenge for pro-European forces across the political spectrum, necessitating a reevaluation of strategies to counterbalance the rising influence of right-wing populism while maintaining the EU’s democratic integrity.

The panel highlighted three major themes expected to shape the elections: recalibrating the green agenda, addressing the war and its broader geopolitical implications, and debating the future of European democracy with an emphasis on corruption, media integrity, and polarisation. It was stressed that nationalistic and right-wing parties are increasingly integrating their agendas within the European framework rather than seeking to dismantle it, which could shift the political landscape significantly.

Finally, the conversation addressed the importance of voter turnout and engagement. In the previous election, a rise in turnout was attributed to fears about far-right parties potentially undermining the European project. However, with the current right-wing parties focusing on reform rather than destruction of the EU, there is concern that voter motivation might wane, potentially lowering turnout. The panel underscored the need for centrist and pro-European parties to craft compelling, positive economic and environmental narratives to mobilise voters and counteract the defensive, anxiety-driven messages that have been prevalent in recent political discourse.

© Gergana Pavlova

he upcoming European elections are set against a backdrop of a continent in flux, with critical issues of defence, security, and competitiveness at the forefront. Amid rising far-right sentiment, the election’s dominant narrative is security, driven by statecraft. However, this focus on external security might eventually backfire as societies grow weary. The recent high turnout in Poland’s elections, driven by younger and female voters with progressive agendas, highlights a significant shift. Yet, mobilising these voters is increasingly costly due to demographic decline. Moreover, European democracies face the added challenge of potential Russian meddling, a long-standing issue that continues to evolve as Russia exploits our financial openness to channel resources into political influence.

Addressing these multifaceted challenges requires a recommitment to democratic values and active civic engagement. The rise of authoritarian populism, bolstered by strategic corruption and external influence, underscores the need for a robust defence of democracy. It’s not just about recognising the threats but also about mobilising citizens to engage politically, fostering a sense of agency and cooperation. This election is not merely a test of political strategies but a crucial moment for European societies to reaffirm their commitment to democratic principles and collective progress, ensuring a resilient and competitive Europe in the face of global challenges.

Watch the full discussion:


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Political debate between Bulgarian MEP candidates:

The above scenario discussion was followed by a political debate among representatives of Bulgaria’s political parties — GERB | SDS, We Continue the Change | Democratic Bulgaria, and BSP for Bulgaria — focusing on their priorities and visions for the upcoming European Parliament elections. Each representative outlined their principles and strategies, emphasising equality among member states, national interests, and reasoned decision-making. The debate covered a range of topics including the Green Deal, deindustrialisation, security, migration, and the geopolitical role of the EU. The parties also addressed their differing approaches to social policy, economic integration, and the balance between environmental and economic priorities.

© Gergana Pavlova

The discussion further highlighted the challenges faced by the EU, such as the Ukraine war and rising populism, and the need for a cohesive European strategy to tackle these issues. The debate also touched on support for Ukraine amid the ongoing conflict, highlighting the need for military and economic aid, though opinions differed on the approach to achieving peace. Finally, Bulgaria’s energy transition was discussed, emphasising the need for a cautious approach to closing coal-fired power plants and a strategic implementation of renewable energy, including nuclear power.

The discussion went into depth concerning topics such as energy policy, migration, EU enlargement, and Bulgaria’s role in the European Union. The speakers emphasised the importance of nuclear energy for sustainability despite opposition, the necessity of smooth transitions away from coal, and the political will needed for energy reforms. On EU enlargement, they supported the integration of Western Balkans but stressed resolving bilateral issues, particularly with North Macedonia, and ensuring adherence to EU values. They highlighted the significance of effective communication to increase voter turnout for EU elections and the integration of local and national policies with European policies. On migration, a distinction was made between irregular and legal migration, acknowledging the necessity of managing both effectively to address labour shortages while maintaining security and humanitarian considerations. Finally, the debate underscored Bulgaria’s potential role in leading regional integration and contributing to EU policy while addressing internal political and economic challenges.

In a nutshell, this consensus-driven debate was seen by many as a breath of fresh air amidst the hostile political landscape in Bulgaria, offering hope for a more united and strategic approach to the upcoming European elections.

Watch the full debate here. (Starting from 1:27:14)

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