From January onwards, the election heat will rise in Brussels. Next May, people in 28 European Union countries can vote for a new European Parliament. With widespread anger at austerity and record unemployment numbers in some countries, French President François Hollande fears for an institutional paralysis. More neutral observers, such as LSE professor Simon Hix, predict a breakthrough of anti-European forces. MEP Graham Watson of the UK Liberals sees a scenario that leads to “chaos”.
That scenario is unlikely, however. The mainstream parties have a very large majority right now. While the centre-right European People’s Party is likely to lose seats in many countries, it would need the equivalent of a political earthquake to topple it from its leading position, especially because the EPP is likely to have a reasonable result in some of the biggest countries. Social-democrats may actually do better than in 2009 in some bigger countries. In Britain, their 2009 score was particularly bad under the Gordon Brown government, and in Germany the recent national result for the centre-left beat the 2009 European result. This could make up for losses in other countries.
But another dangerous and more likely scenario than the one of paralysis could be the following: far-right and far-left parties make substantial gains, while the centre-right and centre-left keep a workable majority. And after a brief period of soul searching on the gap between citizens and Europe, the centrist parties in the European Parliament go back to business as usual.
So the impact on the actual workings of the Parliament of a massive protest vote may actually be minimal. But the impact on the Council and the general political impact in Europe may be more important. Imagine a not unlikely scenario whereby the Front National in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the UK Independence Party in Britain gather the most votes in their countries. Also the far left Syriza could come first in Greece. The governments in power will want to harden their stance and become less easy to work with in the search for compromises.
Many types of “unions” are being discussed between Europeans these days, mostly between the Europeans inside of the Eurozone. They range from fiscal to economic and banking union. But the democratic or political union of Europe is what matters most, as politics always trumps economics.
Economic policy mistakes of the last fifteen years have come back with a vengeance, and there is no other way to solve this than asking the people for sacrifices. But how should public policy balance those sacrifices amongst various groups in society is a question that is not asked clearly enough. With the rise of populist or authoritarian alternatives, the risk is that the 2014 ballot will be dominated by the question of keeping or exiting the Euro, and thereby hide the choice between the possible Euro-strategies that exist for overcoming the crisis. That would be a missed opportunity and bad news for the democratic union.