EP elections are likely to indicate disenchantment despite recovery in support for EU

Public opinion becomes more favourable to EU

European Parliament elections to take place across the EU between May 22nd and 25th are likely to suggest weak support for the European project both from low turnouts and because of strong gains by anti-EU parties especially in France, the UK, the Netherlands and Italy. Just before, on May 12th, the independent Washington DC-based Pew Research Center released a survey of public opinion towards the EU in seven mostly large member countries. The survey is encouraging to those who hope that the EU has good survival prospects in that opinion towards the EU has become, for no very obvious reason, significantly more favourable in the 12 months before the survey was conducted in March-April 2014. The median of countries favourable to the EU moved up from 46% in 2013 to 52% (although it was 60% as recently as 2012). The survey does not ask how many were hostile to the EU but since the remaining 48% must include those with or neutral opinion and don’t-knows, it is reasonable to assume that the margin of those favourable to the EU in relation to those with hostile opinions has moved towards a comfortable margin. Moreover, the UK generally assumed to be the country most hostile to the EU was in fact the median country with 52% favourable (up from 43%) while opinion in France, the country which took the lead in founding the EU’s first precursor in 1951, rose from a poor 41% to a respectable 54%. Opinions in two important countries Poland (up from 68 to 72%) and Germany (up from 60 to 66%) were massively favourable. While Polish views might be partly linked to the inflow of EU funds and the outflow of Polish labour, German taxpayers are in contrast the EU’s largest net contributors and it is a recipient of immigration, now fully free from 27 of 28 member states.

The input from the southern European countries selected, Italy, Spain and Greece, was much less favourable. Most notably Italy where opinion for much of the period since the founding of the EU’s first predecessor in 1951 had been strongly pro-EU saw a severe decline in favourable sentiment over the 12 months from 58 to 46%. Greek pro-EU opinion not surprisingly in view of the uniquely severe economic depression it has been through was weakest at 34%, marginally up from 33%. But Spain which has also suffered economic conditions that can appropriately be described as depression saw an improvement in favourable opinion from 46 to 50%. A notable factor is that young people (18 to 29) are significantly more favourable, the median country being in this case France at 63%.

 

but not its Parliament or Commission

Other aspects of the poll should be deeply worrying to policy-makers in both Brussels and member states. Support for the main EU insitutions, the European Parliament (the median country being the UK at 36%) and the European Commission (also the UK together with Italy at 34%) is low. A median of 65% say that “the EU” (probably here closely identified with the above-mentioned institutions rather that the Council of member governments) does not understand the needs of its citizens, 57% that it is inefficient and 63% that it is intrusive.

 

Parliament will push for one of lead candidates to be Commission president

For better or worse, the European Parliament, one of the two institutions which EU citizens feel are distant from them, wants to have more influence on the other, the European Commission, by linking the EP elections to the choice of Commission president. This has led to a series of lively televised debates between the candidates of five political groupings. All five agreed that the next president of the Commission should come from their number and win the backing of a majority of the EP which is elected over May 22-25. The new EP itself is likely to take the same position. The first choice would be the member of the largest party emerging from the election, which polls indicate will be the centre-right European Peoples’ Party is Jean-Claude Juncker, who has far from outshone his four rivals in the debates. Another possibility if the choice were purely up to the EU would be that some or all of the four parties of  the Liberals, the Socialists, the Left and the Greens vote for an agreed candidate, most likely Martin Schulz the Socialist candidate, who would be able to obtain more votes than Juncker. However, it is very unlikely that the heads of government, who in Germany, Spain, the UK and Poland are from the centre-right would agree to appoint Schulz.

 

but may come into confrontation with governments

Juncker has asserted that the next president should for “democratic” reasons be chosen from amongst the five and that to do otherwise would be a travesty of democracy. But it is unlikely that many even among those who vote for the Peoples’ Party will feel strongly. Taking this election in isolation the democratic argument is a weak one. A stronger argument in favour of choosing one of the five would be that if the precedent is set next time more attention will be paid to the debates and there will be more incentive for good candidates to stand, whereas if someone else is chosen no-one will believe that the same will not happen next time and there will be little motivation for strong candidates to stand or for voters to take an interest in them.

The probability seems to be that the European Council of heads of government which meets on May 27th will want to choose someone other than one of the five debaters, with the current director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, who would be the first female president, being the favourite. What is not clear is how it will set about persuading the European Parliament to accept her. A deadlock between the two institutions is very possible. This will be a particular challenge for Angela Merkel, who as the leading Christian Democrat (Christian Democrats or related parties form the majority of the European Peoples’ Party) was influential in choosing Juncker to represent the EPP and would have to explain to members of the European Parliament why she and other heads of government want to pass over him.

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