By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – On posters, hustings and social media, a battle for Europe is being fought, as contenders seek votes for an EU parliamentary election in late May – but the real battle for power will come only once the count is in.
More than 400 million voters will deal the hands that leaders, of parties, nations and rival EU institutions, must play; but it will be after the May 23-26 ballot that the high-stakes poker will begin that will shape the European Union for years to come.
Then comes the real suspense: how pro-Union groups may build a majority coalition to work with the EU executive and member states to make law; how a growing eurosceptic bloc may disrupt it; how lawmakers will clash with national leaders over who runs Brussels; and whether British members might end up staying.
“The campaign determines the strength of people’s bargaining positions,” a senior official in the European Parliament said. “But the real game will start after the count.“The sheer scale of elections for the 751 lawmakers who will convene in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on July 2 limits scope for surprises of the kind voters have delivered in national ballots as they lose confidence in established elites.
Second only to India as an exercise in democracy but beset by low turnouts that hamstring the legislature’s ambitions to legitimacy, proportional representation, a plethora of parties and a tendency for 28 national campaigns to even out shocks mean that poll data tend to be a fair guide to the overall outcome.
That points to policy continuity as the European Union tries to prove its use in defending common interests in global struggles over power, trade and the environment against nationalist critics.
A survey commissioned by the parliament, whose projections were on the money in the 2014 election, shows the centre-right EPP and centre-left S&D losing 37 seats each and hence the majority they enjoy in an informal “grand coalition”.
That, many lawmakers expect, will mean a broader reaching out after the vote to the likes of the ALDE liberals, who are hoping for a major boost from President Emmanuel Macron’s mould-breaking French party, and also possibly to the Greens.
With Italy’s populist ruling League and, at times, France’s far-right National Rally and Britain’s new Brexit Party topping national opinion rankings, polls show a surge for eurosceptics.
But talk of a blocking minority, with allies in more mainstream groups such as the Polish and Hungarian ruling parties, comes up against the nationalists’ persistent divisions.
The uncertainties around how the parliament will line up in July are compounded this year by a number of new parties – most obviously Macron’s En Marche – keeping options open on whom to sit with, but also by Brexit, since the delay to Britain leaving the EU has led to London holding a vote for 73 British MEPs.
That potentially brief presence means some officials suggest key decisions, notably parliamentary votes on who should succeed Jean-Claude Juncker and his team at the European Commission, be put off until the British have left.
Even without Brexit, this year may be tricky, as lawmakers and national leaders face off over the legislature’s demand that a lead “Spitzenkandidat” from a winning party succeed Juncker.
Leaders would normally agree on a successor in late June so that parliament can endorse the appointment in July. But a row with parliament could also delay the handover beyond Nov. 1.
Key appointments, including that of European Central Bank president after Mario Draghi leaves in October, will see fierce bargaining, among big states and small, the north, south, east and west of Europe, left and right, men and women, and so on.
The European Council of national leaders, which must also choose its own next president in succession to Donald Tusk, is reluctant to be tied to a choice of Manfred Weber, a conservative German MEP, or Juncker’s Dutch deputy, Frans Timmermans of the Socialists.
Macron is a loud opponent of parliament’s Spitzenkandidat push and Brussels is abuzz with talk that he favours others – notably Frenchman Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, or centrist Danish EU antitrust commissioner Margrethe Vestager.
Weber and his parliamentary allies will argue strongly that it is that kind of backroom carve-up which is turning Europeans off the EU. In reply, national leaders may argue that they have stronger democratic mandates to govern than a parliament for which in 2014 only 43 percent of voters cast a ballot.
Polling data suggests somewhat more people intend to vote than last time, parliamentary officials say. But there are huge variations in engagement with campaigns largely fought on domestic issues. In Belgium, where voting is compulsory and a national election is held the same day, turnout was 90 percent in 2014. But in Slovakia, it was 13 percent.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)