Two months ahead of the European elections, British scholar Simon Hix predicts the next European Parliament will be more evenly divided between centre-right and centre-left, but the growing influence of Central and Eastern European MEPs will shift the power balance within the political groups.
Simon Hix is a professor at the London School of Economics.
What do you think will be the major differences between 2004 and 2009?
We are predicting overall stability. There will be a slight shift to the left in the EP, but not huge. Instead of having a Parliament dominated by the centre-right, we will have a much more balanced Parliament between centre-left and centre-right.
The EPP will still be the largest group, but the gap between them and the Socialists will probably be smaller, because we expect the British Conservatives and the Czechs to leave and form some other group.
If the British and their allies form another group, they could be the fourth biggest group in the European Parliament. Then you would get this bloc – the EPP plus this new Conservative group – being quite a strong centre-right bloc in the EP.
The big difference in what we have done this time is the way we did these predictions. Ten years ago, we based it just on opinion polls. And opinion polls in European elections are notoriously unreliable, because when voters are answering questions, they are not really thinking about European elections but about national elections.
It is not like a national election poll, which is always very close to the results.
So what methodology did you use this time?
Five years ago, we developed a statistical technique based on all previous European elections, and established the determinants of how parties do in these elections: are they in government, how big are they, are they an anti-European party, the poll in respect of the national election cycle.
That approach, we found, was better than opinion polls. But this year, we combined the two techniques together. We have added our method to opinion poll data. That improves the predictions by about 5% on the basis of the statistical model.
This is as good as you can get. Predicting elections is difficult anyway.
Do you think the economic crisis will add to the uncertainty of statistical data?
If you predict one election in one country, you do it with detailed data analysis of that country. You can’t do that when you are trying to do an average across Europe.
What you hope is that the errors in one country get balanced by the errors in another country.
Overall, predictions of the European Parliament as a whole are much more accurate than the individual country predictions.
In 2004, you predicted that the Liberals would get 73 seats. They got 100 instead. For 2009, you predict they will set at 87 seats. But in some countries like Germany, they are doing well in regional elections. Aren’t you underestimating their potential gains?
We were off in 2004, because two parties left the EPP and joined the Liberals. We expect the Liberals to gain ground against the two governing parties in Germany. When you have a grand coalition, the votes go away from the two parties in government. We think the Liberals and the Greens are going to do well in Germany. If we are right in our predictions, the FDP will pick up seven seats and we expect the left also to pick up seats.
Six countries make 65% of the seats in the European Parliament. You have to get the big countries right. EU Observer published a forecast a while back, but what they did was mad: they just applied a very simple form of proportional representation in every country. That is not the system that is applied in most countries. Most member states apply a proportional representation that favours the biggest parties not pure proportional representation.
And, that does not work in countries where you have regional district like France and the UK.
This is why we predict that the biggest parties will do better than EU Observer predicted, because of the way they are applying the electoral rules in every country. You can’t just apply a very simple form of proportional representation.
In 2004, you advanced the possible scenario that there would be enough far-right parties to re-establish the old European right group, which it did but then collapsed, because one party left the group. Your predictions are more cautious this time. Don’t you think social unrest will push people to support fringe parties?
They already do in European elections. It is hard to know whether it will be more than normal, because EU elections already have a large protest element as they are mid-term national contests.
Particularly in France, you are going to get some polarisation. You are going to get it primarily on the left, because we don’t think the Socialists are going to do very well.
Don’t you think the growing social unrest across Europe will play a role, considering that 19 out 27 countries are in the hands of conservative governments, and as you said, these are mid-term national contests?
The protest vote does not go to the major opposition party: it goes all over the place. The socialists, as the main party on the centre left, are not really benefiting from it.
Check the big countries. In Italy, the Partito Democratico is not going do very well. In Germany, the socialists are in the grand coalition, so they are both going to do badly.
Just think of the big states. You’ve got Spain, where the socialists are in government, you’ve got Britain, where Labour is going to do badly. You have Poland, where the governing party is running very high in the polls: our predictions shows that they are not going to get anywhere near where the polls are predicting they will be. But even so, the votes are not going to go to a socialist party in opposition in Poland.
In all big states, the socialists are not going to do well. They might do well in other countries, but if they don’t do well in those big six, they are really going to be in trouble.
What about Libertas? Do you think they have a chance?
That’s a real uncertainty. I don’t think there is going to be much of a profile of Libertas, because of the national nature of these elections. Ganley may pick up a seat in Ireland, but I think it will be hard for him to form a genuine, wide European movement.
Although they are European elections, most voters and the media still treat them as national elections. All the questions I get is the elections in my country. What do you expect is going to happen in my country. They don’t care about the European picture. This is what the voters think.
So I don’t think you can launch some new Europe-wide party to fight these elections.
What’s the future of the Greens? If the Conservative group becomes the fourth largest group, they might slip to the fifth or sixth position …
We are predicting they are going to slip down to the sixth largest. Partly, this is linked to the fact that they are coming to the end of cycle where they have done well. But protest votes this time, instead of going to Greens, they will go to more left wing parties. This is what the polls are predicting.
Climate change and the environment are in the mainstream, certainly. But the economic crisis means people start thinking more about the economy, growth and jobs. That agenda is not the green agenda. That agenda is being pushed much more by other leftist parties.
The Greens are probably going to do badly in France, whereas five years ago they did well. Because those voters who would have been voting for the Greens five years ago, are probably going to vote for this new Anti-Capitalist Party.
In Germany also, votes are going to go more to Die Linke than to the Greens.
What will be the political and policy implications of this new power configuration?
This will partly depend on the balance of power not between the parties, but within each group.
What is interesting for example is the national composition of the group. For example in the EPP, there are going to be a lot less Germans, more Italians and more Poles and no Brits.
In the Socialist group, the Germans are going to be back as the largest group and the French and Spanish are going to be present in smaller proportions. So we can see the Socialist become a more moderate party.
The interesting feature will be that Eastern Europeans will have much more impact in the next Parliament than the current one.
Because 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 delegations from Eastern Europe in the largest groups, mainly the Poles.
So the next President of the European Parliament will be a Polish MEP?
It could be.
Is Barroso going to be re-elected?
Probably, that would be my guess. Numerically a non-Barroso coalition could block him. But it is going to be all about the Liberals.
This is where it gets interesting. If the EPP do 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.
The Socialists are split over Barroso. Even when it comes to the vote it is a secret ballot, so I think the EPP are going to need the liberals to guarantee that Barroso gets support.
If Barroso is renominated they need to get a majority. What are the European Conservatives going to do? Are they going to abstain? If they abstain, I don’t know how they are going to get a simple majority to get it though.
Do you think the manifestos will be picked up by national parties? Are we are going to have campaigns focused on European issues?
No one is going to take any notice of the manifestoes. It is a real shame, but these will be national campaigns. This is the seventh round of European elections: it is real a tragedy of these elections.
Despite the global economic crisis and climate change, which have prompted Europe to take action and have shown the value of acting together?
But all those global crisis affect people locally. They look at national leaders to tackle those problems. This is why there is a pressure for protectionism. They want national governments to act. So the focus is at national level.
I personally would like to see rival candidates for the Commission presidency, but we are probably not going to see that, which is a shame.
You see, that would be an element of Europeanness in the campaign. If we don’t get that element, it is going to be yet another national-focused election.
Will the Lisbon Treaty play a role?
I don’t think so. I reckon it will be ratified. Ireland will say ‘yes’ with a low turnout. The problem is the Czechs. The government is incredibly unpopular in Ireland, and the pro-treaty parties are popular.