Think tanks: EU elections could get ‘pretty ugly’

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The European Parliament launched its information campaign for the May 2014 elections with a promise that "this time, it’s different". EURACTIV  asked four of the continent's blue-sky thinkers whether it really is, and whether falling voter turnouts could be reversed if so.

Janis Emmanouilidis is Senior Policy Analysis and Head of Programme at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC). Sonia Piedrafita is Research Fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) think tank. Yves Bertoncini is Director of the Paris-based Notre Europe-Institut Jacques Delors.  Isabell Hoffmann is Project Manager of the Europe’s Future Programme at the Bertelsmann Stiftung based in Gütersloh, Germany.

They spoke to EURACTIV’s Laurens Cerulus

The EU elections in May 2014 will be the first ones to be held under the Lisbon Treaty framework. How will it be different from the previous seven?

Janis Emmanouilidis (EPC): Well, it certainly will be different. First of all, we live under different circumstances. The eurozone crisis has created more attention for EU affairs. People are more interested and there is an open question on the rightness or wrongness of the response to this crisis by EU decision makers.

Secondly, the Lisbon Treaty urges European parties to put forward top candidates for the position of Commission president. This increases the likelihood of people paying attention: they will have the impression that their vote can really make a difference.

Yves Bertoncini (Notre Europe): The campaign will be more political because parties [have] put ‘faces’ on their campaigns. This makes the elections more personal, which is often the case in national campaigns. But on a European level, this hasn’t really been the case so far. Having top candidates like Martin Schulz, Vivianne Reding or others go into debate: that’s what politics is made of.

Are the European parties and their candidates able to carry such a pan-European campaign?

Sonia Piedrafita (CEPS): Parties might come up with strong candidates, but there is a risk that these political figures are well-known in Brussels only. It is very important that citizens across Europe actually know them. So far, the names that have been circulating as frontrunners are not that promising: with some exceptions, these are people that the average European citizen does not know.

Isabell Hoffmann (Bertelsmann Stiftung): Not only the strength of the parties’ front-runners matters, also the capacity and clout of European parties, who will have to organize support. It is a huge enterprise for any candidate to campaign across 28 member states. They not only need political skills, but a huge structural and logistical support as well. The question is whether the European parties can in fact make this happen.

Janis Emmanouilidis (EPC): Pan-European campaigns also risk becoming the results of the lowest common denominator: it is possible the European parties won’t agree on common campaign issues, or won’t tackle the most difficult questions. For example, on the issue of banking union there is a huge divide, not only between member states but within political parties of the same group as well.

Do these elections risk becoming a ‘referendum on Europe’, in which the debate is limited to a pro-Europe versus anti-Europe discussion?

Janis Emmanouilidis (EPC): I wouldn’t oppose such a discussion, since the EU needs to have this debate. Politicians across Europe need to openly discuss this issue with those who have a different opinion on it. It also means the pro-European side will have to come up with strong proposals and arguments.

Yves Bertonici (Notre Europe): I suspect we’ll see another divide appearing in campaigns as well: a classical split between left and right. Mainstream parties will try to differentiate between themselves from other mainstream parties. This is a big challenge for those parties, like the socialist PES or the conservative EPP. Having their frontrunners go head-to-head in the race for the Commission presidency will force them to distinguish themselves from the other contenders.

With a lack of support for the EU on the rise: how big is the chance for a surge in eurosceptic votes?

Isabell Hoffmann (Bertelsmann Stiftung): Well… We have been talking about mobilizing voters and politicizing the EU elections for a long time. We have to be aware that this does not always lead to a clean and rational debate on EU issues – it can get pretty ugly as well. That said, we have seen these eurosceptic pressures popping up in past election campaigns as well and they never quite met expectations.

Janis Emmanouilidis (EPC): The disapproval of the EU and the eurozone crisis have already fostered anti-EU, anti-euro movements. So there is a good chance that these eurosceptic tendencies will have an impact in May. However, the European Parliament will be able to work with a higher number of eurosceptic MEPs. They probably won’t form a coherent group.

Yves Bertoncini (Notre Europe): To be honest, I suspect a gain for the eurosceptic parties, but not that great. If you look at countries like Spain, eurosceptic voices are not organized here. For Poland, Hungary or the UK, these parties are already represented in the European Parliament – though they might gain some seats. The major challenge is in France: the extreme-right Front National (FN) only has three MEPs at the moment, but this might go as high as 10 seats after the elections.

But mainstream parties are taking on more EU-critical arguments as well. This will have a bigger impact than fringe, eurosceptic parties across the EU.

These elections could be the most closely-watched yet across a Europe still reeling from financial crisis. Will this boost voter turnout?

Sonia Piedrafita (CEPS): I wouldn’t be that optimistic about an increase in turnout. The debate will be structured around national issues primarily. We will have to see how this plays out and whether the candidates for the Commission presidency are able to motivate voters to cast their ballot.

Yves Bertoncini (Notre Europe): I think next year will be quite similar to the 1994 EU elections. Europe was [then] struggling with an economic crisis, a debate on the Maastricht Treaty and a war in Yugoslavia. While turnout in 1994 decreased in five out of 12 countries, it went up in other countries like Denmark or France. And there was only a slight decrease Europe-wide.

Today, we have the eurozone crisis, a debate on integrating political powers and a war in Syria where the EU is largely absent. My bet is we will see a slight progression: we are at an all-time low now and voter turnout will increase.

What type of information campaign should the Parliament put forward to help raise citizen’s attention?

Janis Emmanouilidis (EPC): They could showcase two elements. First, the top candidates and the effect this will have on the position for European Commission president. Secondly, that people’s votes can in fact make a difference, for example to how the EU handles the eurozone crisis. But it is difficult to convince people, since many still feel the EP doesn’t have much impact.

Yves Bertoncini (Notre Europe): What they definitely shouldn’t do is claim that the European Parliament is almighty. Citizens won’t fall for a message that says these elections will change their lives.

They should put forward a subtle message, making clear the importance of the European Parliament in sectors such as agriculture, environmental issues or the internal market – those are key sectors the information campaign should focus on.

>> Read the related news article on the European Parliament’s information campaign here

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