Watson, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) party, told journalists in Brussels that mounting euroscepticism could break the balance between the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament.
“The logic that has been behind the elephant marriage of the EPP and the S&D has always been the logic that between the two parties, they can guarantee having 62% of the MEPs, which is the co-decision majority,” said Watson.
If the two main parties lose ground in the May 2014 elections and they get fewer than the 62% of the MEPs, or they are so close that they cannot guarantee a majority, politicians will face a more fractured European Parliament, leading to “chaos”.
“Under those circumstances the two groups might work closer together to ensure that the European Union is governable,” said Watson.
“Or you could argue that either of the two parties would ally with parties on each side of the political spectrum.”
Beppe Grillo’s surprise showing in the February parliamentary elections in Italy and the anti-EU UK Independence Party’s strong finish in recent British by-elections have eroded the power of the more traditional, Europe-focused political parties. Across Europe, fringe groups have seen a surge of support.
Concern about extremism
Earlier this year, the European Commission warned that political extremism was on the rise, spurred by a long economic crisis that has caused record-high unemployment and social exclusion on the continent.
Support for far-right parties is growing, said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, urging European leaders to fight the rise of racist and populist rhetoric that pose a threat to the European project.
If no strong action is taken, Malmström said, extreme political groups could gain wider support in the next European Parliament elections.
“We need more European leaders to express their opposition to rising extremism. We must have the courage to stand up and protect our common European values. We must have all the courage to stand up for what we have agreed upon and protect our values that are now being challenged in many countries in Europe,” Malmström told a news conference on 28 January.
Setting up a timetable for more political elections
European political parties are confident that choosing a candidate for Commission president would herald stronger leadership in the European Union. Better name recognition and a strong political programme could fuel a more political campaign, they reckon.
Voter turnout in the European Parliament elections was 43% in 2009, the lowest since direct elections began in 1979.
Given falling turnout and spreading euroscepticism, experts say that legitimacy of the Parliament must be strengthened by higher voter participation.
MEPs have pushed for members of the next European Commission to be chosen among newly elected members of Parliament so as to give voters more say. National governments currently nominate Commission candidates.
Watson said the ALDE group and other European parties are preparing the timetable for the European elections.
The ALDE party is supposed to adopt a manifesto at their congress in London on 29-30 November. On that occasion they will also open a procedure to nominate candidates for the post of Commission president.
“Although there are no formal candidacies yet, I believe there will be three or four party members that would be interested in going ahead,” Watson said, adding he will not be a candidate.
Nominations will then need to be in by 19 December when they will be discussed by the EU leaders. If there are several candidates, there will be an internal election at a special electoral rally at the beginning of February.
The Liberal timescale mirrors that of other European parties, but no one has set a definite date for nomination. However, the timeframe would allow candidates to campaign for at least three months before the May elections.