"We are predicting overall stability for the next Parliament," said Simon Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics, who together with Trinity College Professor Michael Marsh devised a methodology which predicted the outcome of the last European elections fairly accurately in 2004.
Centre-right EPP to retain first place, but weakened
Hix and Marsh foresee that the European People's Party (EPP) will remain the largest group in the next legislature, with approximately 249 seats, while the Socialist group would win roughly 209 seats, slightly raising its share from 27% to 28% of the new assembly.
Much of the new Parliamentary set-up could be defined by the decision of the British Tories to leave the EPP and create a new European Conservative group with the Czech Conservative ODS and other right-leaning parties.
According to the forecast, commissioned by public affairs firm Burson-Marsteller, this new Conservative group could get as many as 58 MEPs, making it the fourth largest group in Parliament.
The narrowing margin between the big political groups suggests that party discipline will be key, said Robert Mack, CEO of Burson-Marsteller. "On many issues, the influence of the liberal group may increase and swing the outcome," added Mack.
Source: Burson-Marsteller / Predict09
Central and Eastern Europe to play bigger role
With the Tories leaving the EPP, the national composition of the big groups and the internal balance of power is set to shift towards the new member states.
"In the EPP, you are going to have a lot less Germans, more Italians, more Poles and no Brits," said Hix in a separate interview with EurActiv.
"In the Socialist Group, the Germans are going to be back as the largest group," outnumbering former leaders the French and Spanish Socialists, Hix added.
According to the forecast, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) should benefit from the success of German liberals, who are seen as the big winner in Germany, attracting protest votes against the ruling grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.
"Currently in all the groups, Eastern European parties are marginal: they are small parties, even the Polish parties. Now for the first time they are going to have a large national delegation in the largest groups, mainly the Poles," Hix said.
EU elections: A mid-term national poll
Since the first EU elections took place for the first time in 1979, the poll has been seen as a "second order" national contest to punish the parties in government. The gradual increase in the powers of the European Parliament has done little to boost the connection between European voters and EU governance, said Hix, noting that the EP elections are similar to their mid-term Congressional counterparts in the US.
In the upcoming elections, national politics will still dominate the agenda. Even the political manifestoes carefully drafted by the European parties will be sidelined. "No one is going to take any notice of it. It's a real shame, but these will be national campaigns," Hix lamented.
Socialists: Only a 2% probability of outnumbering the EPP
Despite the fact that 19 out of 27 EU countries are run by centre-right coalitions, Hix and Marsh do not foresee the Socialists winning a huge number of protest votes across Europe.
Their analysis is based on the fact that the big six European countries make up 66% of the seats in the European Parliament. Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the UK will set the tone for the outcome.
"In all the big states, the Socialists are not going to do well. They might do well in other countries," said Hix, but he acknowledged that in Germany, Spain and the UK, where they are in government, socialists are losing ground.
Greens slipping to lower ground
With the creation of a new Conservative group, the Greens will slip to a lower position in the new Parliament, becoming the fifth or the sixth political group.
According to Hix and Marsh, the Greens will probably lose votes in France due to competition from Olivier Besancenot's new Anti-Capitalist Party.
The same could happen in Germany, where Green votes would boost Die Linke, Hix argued, noting that the economic crisis is pushing citizens to think more about the economy, jobs and growth, "which is not a green agenda".
Fringe parties: Libertas a real uncertainty
The two professors were wary of predicting too much success for new pan-European movement Libertas, which was launched recently by Irish anti-Lisbon Treaty campaigner Declan Ganley.
"Ganley may pick up a seat in Ireland, but I think it will be hard for him to form a genuine European-wide movement," Hix said.
The far right and far left, on the other hand, are expected to gain votes, but Hix is more cautious in his predictions than in 2004, where he successfully forecasted the re-establishment of the former Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty group, a far-right Parliamentary grouping which subsequently collapsed (EurActiv 17/03/09).
Barroso or not Barroso? Liberals may have the answer
Because of the even split between the centre-right and the centre-left, the liberal democrats of the ALDE group are likely to play a pivotal role in the definition of majorities within the new Parliament.
The party, headed by Graham Watson, could also play a central role in the reappointment or ousting of José Manuel Barroso as Commission president.
Barroso is the EPP-backed candidate, but his chances of another term would look much slimmer with a weakened EPP, given that the Socialists are divided over his reappointment.
The first test will be the selection of the new European Parliament president. Traditionally, Socialists and the EPP agree a behind-closed-doors deal on the nomination.
But this year, ALDE group leader Graham Watson has launched his own campaign to become the next EP president.
"If the EPP does a deal with the Socialists over the presidency of the European Parliament and the Liberals get really annoyed, it may be tricky for Barroso to get through," Hix pointed out.
He argued that in order to get Barroso reappointed, the EPP might have to give up on the presidency of the European Parliament by becoming allied with ALDE, unless they can attract the support of the Socialist group, which is presently divided over Barroso's nomination.