Europe Decides… and we look on!

Europe Decides LogoToday, as polls open in the UK and the Netherlands, FNF Europe has invited David O’Leary, Project Leader of Europe Decides with Burson-Marsteller Brussels and Thomas Leys, Campaign Officer for the Open VLD to discuss with us the campaigns & candidates of EU2014 elections and tell us what they think the EU will look like post-elections.

Looking into his crystal ball, on the results of the European elections O’Leary sees the core pro-EU parties in the lead. Although the Eurosceptic left and right-wing populist parties stand to gain significant increases in seats, “these groups will do nothing but create noise” – their inability to form coalitions or coherent policy positions will still leave most of the actual legislative work to be firmly in the hands of the mainstream parties. Their expected impact is overstated and the days of them catching the headlines will be but fleeting. Together the EPP, S&D and ALDE will still take up two thirds of the seats.

A much more important aspect for the European Parliament elections is that of voter-turnout, according to O’Leary. The voter turnout has been in steady decline since the first EP elections in 1979; the numbers will thus show whether the European Parliament has further lost credibility or can punch in the same weight class as national parliaments. The outcome of these elections may also determine if the idea of a lead candidate for Commission presidency survives. Or has the European Parliament taken an imprecise passage in the Lisbon Treaty to expand its power by convincing everyone that only one of the candidates, running as the so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” of five political groups will in the end become President of the European Commission?

Results Debate InfographicThe parties have done well in engaging voters on social media outlets. This may seem trivial, but considering the lack of pan-European media outlets, they didn’t have much choice. Still, the debates between the leading candidates only drew 120.000 viewers – a minimal fraction if one compares that to US numbers. As an example: 5 million tweets were sent during the last US presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. National news broadcasters apparently did not see the value of the debates and only few channels transmitted them. This may well have had something to do with the impression that the candidates for the European Parliament are on average not well-known figures. “The European Parties have not put up their super stars for this race,” O’Leary said ‘’probably in an attempt not to burn them, but it still gives the impression of European politics being side-lined.”

Will the election results have an impact on the European institutions? Regardless of outcome, the real decisions will be taken by the 28 Heads of State who will meet for dinner on 27 May to discuss the future EU top personnel. O’Leary is skeptical that one of the “Spitzenkandidaten” will become Commission President in the end. The European Commission will not be judged, however, by how its president was chosen, but rather by how well it performs in its day-to-day activities, so his assessment. European parties have succeeded in making a strong link to the national parties, with the lead candidates traveling all across Europe to appear at election rallies. It really seems that they have internalized that in the 28 national debates it is the results of the national parties that counts.

And indeed, for national parties, such as the Open VLD, the results of parties in national and regional elections is equally, if not more important than their parties’ performance on the European level. In Belgium, people will cast their votes for the regional, national and European levels at the same time. By scheduling all elections on the same day, turning it into the “mother of all elections,” as Leys lovingly refers to it, Belgium hopes to stabilize the political environment and avoid a repetition of the last disastrous national elections that left the country 451 days without a government – a world record.

2014-05-22 13.33.21The Open VLD is thus engaged in a battle for votes on all fronts. Particular voters’ tendency to split votes between parties on different levels has to be mitigated, says Leys. “It is difficult to determine the right strategy if you have a strong candidate like Guy Verhofstadt for the European level, knowing that that may give you one or two seats more in the European Parliament, while the outcome on the local level may have a real impact on the seat distribution for both the Flemish and national parliaments”. At the same time, in Belgium, as well as across Europe even the European-campaigns have changed in comparison to only five years ago: “the campaign is much less ideological – the Europhoria is gone and what is left are more utilitarian questions, like “what are we getting out of the EU,” Leys explains. Perhaps this is why the European campaigns of the big parties are so similar to each other – little policy, lots of platitudes.

The importance of these European elections may appear negligible, but they are the first elections since the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty. They are the first elections in which the European Council is obliged to take the election results into consideration when nominating the next European Commission President. It is a question of democracy and of the future of the European Union: a strengthened European Parliament is part of the liberal vision for a “Europe that works” – where processes are transparent, competencies are on those levels where they make the most sense and citizens can identify with the continent. A Europe we can be proud of and that has a future.

Susan Schneider

Foto source: FNF Europe