Former Secretary of the European Parliament Julian Priestley takes stock of the campaign so far.
Is it really different this time? Has the novelty of a common candidate for the presidency of the Commission and the personal focus this brings to the contest changed the way the EP elections are being fought?
Three weeks away from the election it would be a brave commentator who hazarded a guess about the result or the turnout. But the way in which European and many national parties are conducting their campaigns has changed. Most but not all national parties are vying for visits of their presidential nominee. All the candidates are conducting Europe-wide tours, and each will visit over the full two-month period nearly all 28 member states (although not the same ones). In the last three weeks some candidates are visiting the same country several times. Big events staged for them are drawing good crowds. Each speech, each interview, each appearance by each of the 5 main candidates is addressing European issues. And the debates are beginning to take the campaign beyond both the Brussels bubble and the ranks of the faithful of national parties.
The main debates are still to come but the experience so far has been instructive. By strategic deployment of twitter and Facebook, there is an accompanying noise which reaches a much wider audience than those watching or listening to the broadcast. The tone of the debates will disappoint those commentators still addicted to Punch and Judy national politics. There is common ground between the candidates, a kind of mutual respect and an adult conversation.
But the fault-lines are there; responsibility for the crisis; harsh austerity or flexibility in deadlines for bringing deficits down? Growth just by deregulation or is public investment in infrastructure necessary both for renewable energies and for digital services? Gender issues, particularly the pay gap; tax evasion. In the debate organised by Maastricht University and covered by a big press corps, the sharpest exchange was over Ukraine with Verhofstadt and Schulz arguing passionately over whether the EU should be taking a tougher line with Russia or whether maintaining dialogue would be more effective. And in the debates the personalities are coming across; the combative Schulz, the professorial Verhofstadt, the more laid-back Juncker.
The debates will be intensified in the coming weeks as will the social media battle. At the moment Schulz is ahead in his digital reach, and notching up figures which by the end of the campaign should put him on a par with the most prominent national leaders in Europe. He is also conducting a ground war with thousands of activists in the field, specifically campaigning for his presidency.
So with less than three weeks campaigning left it is possible to say for the first time that there is a European campaign complementing national efforts. Schulz is being deployed heavily in France, Spain and Italy where his name recognition is high and where the national parties judge that his record as a German politician with a record of opposing blind austerity will be a plus for their campaigns. Juncker’s main push appears to be East, and in Germany, where his stewardship of the Eurogroup is viewed less negatively than in the South.
At this stage all the polls point to a near dead tie between the EPP and the Socialists, but which would be a significant gain for the Left. What may be being underestimated could be the populists who are looking to double their current representation in the Parliament, although in the Netherlands and in France they appear to have peaked. And turnout remains the big question.
This commentary is written from the heart of the Brussels bubble. But everyone has his own bubble. There’s a British bubble as well. The UK coverage of the elections barely mentions the European campaign, apart from a few sneers at the candidates, playing up of doubts about the credibility of the process, and a focus on populists. The British campaign revolves around one man, Nigel Farage, and has become a kind of surrogate referendum on British membership.
This is the deliberate choice of the mainstream parties who have decided to concentrate their campaigns on some national issues, keep a distance from Europe-wide campaigns and particularly the presidential contest. None of the three leading candidates for the Commission will be visiting mainland Britain, although Schulz was in Belfast last week. They all understand that the European debate in Britain is of a different nature from that elsewhere in the continent. Time will tell whether the strategy of the main UK parties pays off or simply plays into the hands of UKIP.
Within three weeks we will know the answer to several questions; whether the European component to the EP elections campaign has made a substantial difference; whether turnout has increased, thus reversing a decline in participation which has marked every single previous EP election; whether the populists have made a major step forward; and which of the three candidates for the presidency of the Commission is best placed to create a parliamentary majority for the new Executive. But there is already a difference; compare and contrast with the appointment of previous Commission presidents.
And thereafter a new question will have to be answered; will the member state governments accept the logic of what the Treaty says; will they really take the elections into account? Will they propose to the EP the name of the openly declared presidential candidate best placed to form a stable parliamentary majority? Or will they, like Herman Van Rompuy, remain in denial about allowing the electors a say in the decision, and plunge the EU into an unparalleled institutional stand-off?
Julian Priestley is a former Secretary General of the European Parliament. He is co-author (with Nereo Peñalver Garcia) of a book on the first ‘presidential’ election in Europe. It will be published in the autumn by Macmillan Palgrave.
As the campaign for the 2014 European Parliament elections progresses, this article forms part of a series by former Secretary General of the European Parliament Julian Priestley, critically examining the key issues facing the EU at this crucial time.
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