Why the 2014 European Parliament Elections will determine the future of EU project and even its survival

The forthcoming European Parliament elections, which take place in all EU countries on May 22-25, will not only provide an opportunity for Europe’s citizens to express their opinions over the handling of the Eurozone financial crisis, but will also allow them to take pivotal role in the selection of the next President of the European Commission. The European parties are planning to propose candidates for this role – PES and Party of European Left have done so – and the candidate from the largest party in the new Parliament is likely to then be elected as the next Commission President. Currently, there are rising concerns that the EU is about to reach a political crossroads in 2014.  For the first time there will take place genuine ‘European’ elections, with the potential to bring a real impact in shaping European politics over the next years.

However, opinion polls months ahead of the vote, suggest candidates on the far left and far right will gain support, as voters are about to express frustration with Europe after four years of financial depression and job losses. The combination of those fundamental problems of European citizens, has given space to populist forces, who have become more aggressive and attract votes of those disappointed by policies implemented to tackle financial instability, especially in countries affected by severe austerity programmes or tight economic policies, such as France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the UK.

Besides the right-wing forces, there are far-left and protest movements that traditionally have not had strong popular backing, such as Syriza in Greece and Five Star Movement in Italy, as well as single-issue parties such as Germany’s anti-euro AfD that are expected to secure representation in the 760-seat European Parliament, the EU’s only directly elected body. These new born political forces have focused and adjusted precisely their rhetoric on the rejection of austerity reforms needed to ease their countries’ massive debt, but there is less to propose for economic development, innovation in entrepreneurship and financial growth. Hence, empowering these forces is expected to slow the recent economic stability and recovery achieved by the sacrifices of Europe’s people, threatening to tip the entire euro zone back into full-blown national political crises, providing these protest movements and parties an alibi to continue their radical campaigns.  Some of this is due to the dreadfully uncomfortable questions that the crisis has asked of the EU about democratic accountability – who can forget the panic spread among the European leaders with a potential referendum on EU bailout proposed by the then PM of Greece, Papandreou – the political destination of the EU, and future relations with emerging economies and those countries that do not use the single currency, such as the UK. As a result, trust within the EU has been ruined.

Although, I strongly believe that, the mainstream political parties will remain largely dominant in the new Parliament, it is time to start a public debate, based on two main pillars, the real reform agenda and the role of the Commision, having gained considerable technical powers, involving in national economies since 2008. Hence, they have to speak out publicly for a real reform agenda, at the same time, pointing out the values of EU, the financial gains it can bring to emerging economies, the protection it provides to Member States and the milestones of the EU project.

However, trust in the EU will not return to its former level until voters once again perceive it as the vehicle for economic growth and development. Taking that under consideration, MEPs and candidates have to talk about, expanding the single market into business services, IT, telecoms, construction and railways, and re-focusing the EU budget so that more money is spent on projects that boost growth, such as e-commerce and energy security. Cross-border e-commerce is after all one of the few areas that the European mainstream political system can look to for growth in the present tight financial situation.

The EU cannot be taken for granted, candidates of pro-European political forces need to get out of their comfort zone and criticize failures or social injustices caused by austerity programmes implemented to countries affected by financial crisis. In addition, the three major European parties together should agree a new legislative programme for the EU at the start of the new Commission’s mandate in 2014. This should promote the Commission to remain the independent Institution the EU needs, instead of an increasingly partisan political actor, involved in national economies and policy development. In opposition to populist rhetoric of extremist political forces, mainstream forces have to explain in a rational and reasonable way, how stability and trust will be relaunched within societies of EU Member States. Hence, it is time to embrace a real reform agenda, considering some practical, feasible reforms that the governments of EU can begin to implement immediately. In other words, they have to make proposals for a brighter European future, and so, give the chance to future generations gain courage and hope, in order to believe in the EU values.

The current economic situation bares remarkable similarities with that of 1930s. It has given rise to an almost identical surge in political extremism with emerging signs of similar violence. Populism was and still is the biggest threat to peace, democracy, social welfare and financial growth.  Although the European Parliament elections have been treated traditionally as a protest vote, the EU citizenry should now beware politicians selling simplistic and radical solutions, doubting the abilities of the political system. For the first time in history of the EU project, the majority emerging from the outcome of the European Parliament elections will directly determine the policies followed by the EU.

After all, there is only one choice for EU. Succeed and evolve into something better, focusing on the real needs of citizens and boost national economies or be replaced by something worse, leading to chaos.

Kostas Asimakopoulos is a Political Communications expert, with experience on EU Affairs and UK Public Affairs, former Special Adviser of the Greek Government.