Tim McPhie is an associate director in APCO’s Brussels office.
Last week, at its final full-chamber meeting before the summer break, the European Parliament adopted its latest Resolution on next year’s European elections. The text is basically a “call to arms” for MEPs, political parties and governments across the 28 EU Member States to get out the vote on 22-25 May 2014. Does it say anything new? Not really. But it’s still worth recapping a couple of key points that readers might have missed.
The key change at next year’s elections, at least in the eyes of Brussels “insiders”, is the fact that European political parties will be nominating candidates to run for President of the European Commission. The hope in Brussels is that this will add a personal touch to the EU executive, and to the election campaigns, and encourage people to vote for their favourite candidate – rather than lodging a protest vote against their national government on domestic issues, or simply not turning up at all, which has become increasingly common.
There is the possibility that protest candidates will thrive in this atmosphere, however, taking the opportunity to win votes for bashing the EU at a pan-European, rather than just a national, level. Imagine for example Nigel Farage MEP, leader of the UK Independence Party, rallying support behind his peers in other increasingly sceptical countries to generate a pan-European anti-European(!) movement. Another interesting option is a different kind of protest vote, against the current economic and social model across Europe and around the world. Veteran anti-capitalist activist José Bové, the French farmer who famously drove a tractor through a McDonald’s restaurant, is rumoured to be a candidate for the Green Party’s nomination. German MEP, and current Parliament President Martin Schulz seems to be the candidate-in-waiting for the Party of European Socialists. In an era of wide Southern European anger about the German role in imposing tough austerity measures, will it be difficult for the Greek Socialists of PASOK to rally behind him? And what of the UK Labour Party, campaigning under the intense scrutiny of a mainstream press which is predominantly anti-European.
This leads us nicely onto another point in the Parliament’s Resolution last week, a call for media outlets to “bring maximum attention to the elections” and “permit political broadcasts by the European political parties”. The media is often criticised for giving Brussels a tough ride, perhaps as it’s an easy story to sell, perhaps because Member State governments are happy to brief against the Commission and Parliament to shift blame. It will be fascinating to see how much coverage the European elections get in 2014, and also to see how many viewers tune in.
Social media is the only place we currently see any debate about the Parliament elections. A growing number of people in Brussels and across the Member States are getting drawn into the discussions, whether they do so with a primarily European or local interest. Our own @EPElections Twitter account is an excellent example of this. Having started our tweets a couple of months ago we have picked up speed fast, and are now at a modestly impressive 600+ followers, with 100 signing up in just the last week. It’s an interesting mix of people too – MEPs and political group staffers from Brussels of course feature heavily, but there is a broad mix of interest from bloggers, journalists and academics across Europe.
The one thing that is challenging us a little is the question of who will run in next year’s elections. If we knew that we’d have a lot more to tweet about! However, for many Member States we won’t know officially until early next year, or even later, who will be the candidates. No wonder the Parliament’s latest Resolution calls on parties to pick their candidates early, for both Commission President and MEP roles. How can anybody expect to generate political interest at grassroots level when people don’t know who they are voting for until the last minute? A political campaign needs time to build momentum, candidates need time to tell their story and present their ideas. If the EU institutions really want people to get excited about the May 2014 elections, they should give them something or someone to get excited about more than a few weeks in advance!