Starting gun sounds for EU elections 2014
By Benjamin Fox
May 2014 might seem a long way off for ordinary folk, but not for budding MEPs.
The next European elections will not reach public consciousness for at least 18 months, but the MEP selections, as well as the slow process of drafting pan-EU election manifestoes, will start between now and Christmas.
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The 2009 elections were a victory for the centre-right and apathy and a disaster for the European left.
At a time when massive state bail-outs of the banking sector and the gory results of a largely unregulated financial sector were fresh in the memory, voters decided to take it out on the left.
At the post-election Strasbourg session in July 2009, the shell-shocked Socialist group had been reduced to 183 MEPs, well adrift of the 265 won by the European People's Party. In the three largest member states, Germany, France and the UK, socialist and labour parties took severe beatings.
Since then people have looked on in horror as a financial sector crisis morphed into a sovereign debt crisis.
The 17-country eurozone will almost certainly slide into a double dip recession this year and possibly next. Unemployment has risen over 11 percent, while a quarter of young people cannot find work, training or full-time education.
Five countries have required a bailout and more may follow. Greece could even depart the single currency. It is quite probable that in 2014 economic output across the eurozone will be lower than it was in 2009 despite (or even because of) co-ordinated programmes of spending cuts.
Wither the left?
The worst for the left was still to come, with centre-left governments in the UK, Portugal, Spain and Greece turfed out of office.
Although Francois Hollande's win in the French presidential elections was a huge morale-booster for socialists across Europe, only the most blindly optimistic would argue that social democracy is back as the continent's dominant force.
The formidable Angela Merkel remains Europe's pre-eminent politician and her mantra that economic stability can only be achieved through budgetary austerity remains the default setting at EU level.
But if it seems unlikely that mainstream left parties will mop up where will the votes go?
There are several political movements which are effectively exploiting public anger with the political class and the masters of the financial universe.
Economic policy across Europe seems to be dictated by febrile traders in the financial markets along with bureaucrats in the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
This democratic deficit is manna from heaven for protest parties. The question is whether it can be harnessed by a coherent political movement.
Alternatives to austerity
Right now European democracy is more fragmented than it has been for generations.
The political establishment of conservative, social democrat and liberal parties have suffered huge losses as voters seek an alternative to multi-billion euro bailouts, austerity budgets and bank rescues.
Most parties can claim to have worked out the disease but not the cure. The question of how cash-strapped governments can create the conditions for economic growth remains unanswered.
Leftist anti-austerity parties are probably in the best position to make big gains.
With centre-right and centre-left governments both responsible for pushing through near identical programmes of spending cuts, the ideological divide between them appears to have vanished, leaving space on the left.
The Greek Syriza movement is now the second party in Greece, having routed the socialist government of Pasok, while Jean Luc-Melanchon took over 10 percent of the vote in the French presidential election. The far-left GUE/NGL group only boasts 35 MEPs, a figure that could easily be doubled in 2014.
At the same time, eurosceptic nationalism is also on the rise, from north European parties angry at having to bail out feckless Mediterraneans, to southern Europeans furious at the humiliations forced on them by their wealthier fellow Europeans.
A disparate bunch like True Finns, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen to the Golden Dawn are united by opposition to immigration and the EU.
Meanwhile, it will also be worth watching the exploits of the Pirate Party, believers in a free Internet.
The Swedish Pirate Party won two seats in 2009 but, since then, Pirate party candidates in German municipal and regional elections have scored well, and the party will run a slate of candidates as a pan-EU party in 2014.
The collapse of the controversial anti-counterfeit treaty Acta, which would have harmonised international rules on intellectual property protection, but was thrown out by MEPs this July, was a public relations gift to the Pirates.
As a single issue party they will not win hundreds of seats, but it will be interesting to follow the fortunes of this political party for the digital age.
The first truly 'European' elections?
A common complaint of federalists has been that the European elections have never been sufficiently "European," with 27 different national campaigns instead, usually fought on the popularity of the incumbent government.
The pan-EU election manifestos have tended to include little of substance and been largely ignored. In 2014 many political parties will want to do the same, but the sheer reach of EU action will make it near impossible.
The economic governance "six pack," which gives the commission sweeping powers over national budgets, came into force at the start of 2012 and has seen the EU executive demand additional spending cuts from several member states.
The fiscal compact will be in place, with debt brakes incorporated into national constitutions.
Despite Merkel's protestations to the contrary, it is likely that the eurozone will move towards an embryonic fiscal union possibly even with a mutualised debt agency.
The prospect of having a common eurozone treasury and finance minister within the next five years is also a distinct possibility.
The eurozone debt crisis has laid a stiff challenge to the EU project and to the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy.
Two and a half years after the first Greek bailout was agreed, it is far from clear that Europe's leaders have the will or the nous to actually 'do what it takes' to pull the single currency off the life-support machine.
In 2009, most voters were prepared to give the mainstream parties the benefit of the doubt. If Europe is still mired in recession, debt and disillusion, it is unlikely they will vote for more of the same in 2014.
Benjamin Fox is a frequent contributor to EUobserver