European Parliament elections have hitherto been little more than a replay or rehearsal for national elections, fought almost entirely on national issues and between national parties, with scarcely any link in most voters’ minds to the wider EU parties with which they are aligned. There is a chance that, 35 years after the first direct elections to the EP, the 2014 elections will be different: that EU-wide, or at least euro-wide, issues will for the first time play a significant role in some of the 28 countries and that one or more leading contending personalities will become known across the EU.
Some, but not all, countries have major parties questioning EU membership
One issue will be the fundamental one of whether member states of the EU want to remain member states. The UK Independence Party will aim to become the largest UK party in the EP, as a result of its campaign to leave the EU and close the UK to immigration from the EU. The French Front Nationale does not overtly call for France to leave the EU but in order to fight against what it sees as the EU’s role as the “Trojan horse” of globalization and EU rules against state aids and other forms of industrial policy, the FN calls for French law to have primacy over EU law, a call which is not compatible with EU membership and if followed systematically could lead to the expulsion of France. In the Netherlands and Finland there are also major parties that question whether their countries should fulfill their EU obligations. However, across most of the rest of the EU, while the institutions may not be popular, calls to leave the EU, or the euro area, are not likely to be feature prominently.
Two topics of debate to feature across EU
There are two topics which will be debated across the EU: the first is how to boost employment opportunities especially for young people and the second is whether the EU should be more or less unified. Neither topic is at all simple.
No-one is in favour of unemployment and while some may appear to take a pro or anti austerity line, the “anti-austerity” parties are actually calling for adjustments to deficit-reduction programmes, not their abandonment. So called structural reforms to labour markets are still primarily in the demesne of national legislation and practice, but debates on issues like to what extent labour market insiders are favoured against outsiders are common to most countries and reforms to benefit outsiders as well as other reforms are being promoted by the European Commission and are increasingly coming to be seen by Germany and other creditor countries as conditions for bail-outs of countries in crisis.
The point of view that the EU should be able to hand powers back to member states–as well has take on new powers when benefits can be proved–has gained currency (arguably a victory for British diplomacy), and all parties are likely to include in their programmes calls at least for reductions in bureaucracy and the elimination of some EU legislation. At the same time most parties will favour some forms of greater EU activity where they can see resulting benefits. Even the UK government tends to support efforts to extend the single markets free movement concept deeper into the services sector, which actually requires more EU rules, albeit ones likely to impact more on countries with less open service sectors than the UK. A banking union, starting from late 2014 with giving the European Central Bank the role of supervisor of all large banks, is in principle agreed for most of the EU (excluding the UK).
Just as is true in national elections, it will be the overall image in relation to the above two issues that determines electability. When Franklin D Roosevelt was elected president of the US in 1932 in the middle of the Great Depression, it was the overall message of hope more than any specific public works, or other programmes, which mattered most. Particularly in the case of the most economically-troubled countries of southern Europe, this will be the challenge for the leading personalities contending the May 2014 EP election.
Parties will put forward candidates for Commission president
For the first time, at least three of the four main EP parties – the Socialists and Democrats, the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens–will put forward candidates for Commission president (the Greens plan to put forward two candidates). It remains the fact that any future president would have to be proposed by the European Council of heads of government and there is no formal rule as to whom it should propos. But if one EP party achieves a clear plurality and is able to win support from other parties to command a majority in the EP, it would be very hard for the European Council not to propose that party’s candidate. Any candidate has to be endorsed by the EP, which would be likely to reject all other candidates if it considered its own choice to have won democratic legitimacy.
The Socialists and Democrats are almost certain to put forward Martin Schulz, the current president of the European Parliament. The fact that he is from Germany, well established for 50 years as by far the most powerful country economically and in recently years also the most powerful country politically, could be a disadvantage. However, Schulz is likely to be able to overcome this as a result of the enormous effort he has already put into engaging with the EU’s different countries particularly those like Greece where resentment towards Germany is strongest (he has been to Greece ten times since the beginning of the current crisis). He has argued for increased solidarity across the EU. For example, following the drowning of over 300 would-be migrants and asylum-seekers off the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 3rd, he has emphasized that the problem is one for the EU, not just Italy and argued that its immigration policy should be fundamentally reassessed.
Language barriers will need to be overcome
Whether Mr Schulz, or other candidates for other European parties, can make an impact on voters’ decisions outside their own countries will depend on whether the national parties are willing to give him and the European party a role in their national campaigns. There is a good chance that this will happen in many countries, as it would boost their profile and as several countries see their economic problems as part of euro zone problems. There will also be language barriers to overcome. Even good linguists cannot be expected to speak 24 languages well, but sometimes effort repays. President Kennedy made a big impact on German public opinion with just four words “Ich bin ein Berliner”.