A political obsessive's paradise: A 28 nation opinion poll
By Benjamin Fox
There are few things that political obsessives love more than opinion polls. On Wednesday (19 February), Brussels' army of amateur psephologists saw their dreams come true. A poll for all twenty eight EU countries.
The Socialist group is three months away from a surprise victory in May's European elections, according to Pollwatch, which released its first pan-EU forecast at an event so popular that it was standing room only.
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If accurate, it would be a stunning defeat for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), which has dominated the last four legislatures and currently has a 274 to 194 seat advantage over the Socialists.
It also gives hope to Martin Schulz, the current president of the parliament, who will be confirmed next month as the Socialist candidate to lead the next European Commission.
Funded by the European Parliament, George Soros' Open Society Foundation and lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller, PollWatch is headed up by Professor Simon Hix of the London School of Economics.
It was first used in the run up to the last elections in 2009 and says that it correctly forecast 720 of the 736 seats won by the political groups at the election - a 98 percent success rate.
While conceding that the EPP/Socialist battle is “too close to call this far from the elections," Hix does not expect a big shift in the overall poll picture.
Of the six largest EU countries - Germany, France, UK, Italy, Spain and Poland - which between them account for more than 50 percent of the Parliament's seats, he thinks that the most significant poll shifts could be in the UK, Germany and Italy.
A political 'honeymoon' period for Italy's Matteo Renzi, whose centre-left led government will take office next week, could radically alter the opinion polls, while the early polling in the UK has pointed to a surprisingly big victory for the opposition Labour party. National polls will undoubtedly become more accurate as election day edges closer.
Although most observers at Wednesday's event - anecdotally at least - expect the EPP to have their noses slightly in front when the votes and seats are divided up after the 22-25 May election, the projections should not come as a huge surprise.
It is probably a fair assessment that the Socialists could win the elections without making huge advances on their current total of 194 seats in the 751-member Parliament.
The poll also underscored a trend that few analysts are contesting - namely that the continents' centrist parties are going to suffer at the hands of angry voters as part of an anti-establishment backlash across a large number of countries.
PollWatch has the combined seat share of the EPP, Socialists and Liberal (ALDE) group falling to 65 percent from its current 72 percent level.
Meanwhile, it expects almost 30 percent of the seats to be taken by parties who are either eurosceptic or flatly opposed to the European Union, with Marine Le Pen's National Front topping the poll in France.
But although the figures about a possible Socialist surge and the rise of anti-establishment eurosceptics will dominate most of the headlines, it is the likely collapse in seats for the Liberal group that could have the most profound effect on how legislation will be agreed in the next five years.
Research by VoteWatch - itself run by the same people as PollWatch - based on number-crunching several thousand parliamentary votes has found that Liberal MEPs were part of the majority in more than 85 percent of the vote, more often than the centre-right EPP despite having less than a third as many deputies.
Moreover, as the Parliament's third largest group, with 85 MEPs, the Liberals have been natural 'kingmakers', either combining in a natural centre-right majority with the EPP, or being part of a grand centre-left coalition with the Socialists and Greens.
But the PollWatch forecast has them being reduced to 64 seats in May, only marginally bigger than the far-left, and dwarfed by 92 eurosceptic MEPs.
The 'known unknowns'
The other question is whether the EU's 28 government leaders will pay any heed to the election result when they get down to deciding on the next commission president.
May's elections will be the first to have a direct effect on who the next President of the EU executive will be, with treaty provisions requiring EU leaders to take the result of the elections into account picking a commission president.
But an inconclusive result could encourage leaders to pick a candidate whose name is not on any ballot paper.
A straw poll of the roughly 100 people present at the launch of the survey voted overwhelmingly that one of the party candidates should get the job. But an audience composed of officials from the EU's institutions, Brussels lobbyists and a sprinkling of journalists, academics and think-tank policy wonks is not a terribly representative bunch.
Hix himself believes EU leaders will opt for yet another stitch-up behind closed doors, with leaders eventually plumping for the least offensive candidate.
Hix says that this would be "tragic for European democracy" and it is hard to disagree with him. Like it or not, parliamentary democracy means that elections matter and it would set a disappointing precedent if leaders were to blithely ignore the results. It would also render the much vaunted language in the Lisbon treaty completely meaningless.
This, however, is one of the 'known unknowns' to be chewed over in the weeks and months ahead. And those whose lives feel emptier without opinion polls can rest easily - they only have to wait two weeks for the next one.