by Neil Madden
STRASBOURG, May 17 (Xinhua) -- Voters across the European Union (EU) go to the polls from next Thursday in what promise to be the most significant European Parliament (EP) elections since the first direct elections took place in 1979.
The tone for the four-day voting could be set from the outset as the first two countries - Britain and the Netherlands - both have rapidly growing Eurosceptic populist parties, start to vote on May 22.
They will be followed on May 23 and 24 by a handful of other countries, including Ireland and the Czech Republic, with the majority of member states having their say on Sunday May 25.
Two significant things will happen at these elections.
Firstly, voters are being asked to choose fewer Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) as the number of seats has been reduced from 766 to 751.
Secondly, for the first time there is supposed to be a direct link between the election results and the appointment of the next European Commission (EC) president to replace the outgoing Jose Manuel Barroso.
This second point marks a fundamental break with past practice when the EC president was selected after horse-trading among the heads of member governments in the European Council. This led to accusations that the most important position in the entire European project was assigned without any reference to ordinary voters.
Following the Lisbon Treaty, the rules were changed in order to bridge this "democratic deficit." This time Europe's political groups have selected their own candidates ahead of the elections, following which the president of the European Council will consult with the EP on a possible candidate. If after negotiations the European Council (ie, member state governments) accepts the candidate, his or her election then has to be voted on by the incoming parliament.
Although five main candidates have been put forward by the various political alliances, in reality this should boil down to a choice between the two largest parties in the EP: the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), whose favoured candidate is Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, and the social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES), whose flag bearer is Martin Schulz, a German and the current president of the EP.
However, the real bargaining is likely to be done at an EU summit to be held on June 26-27, some weeks before the first plenary session of the new parliament. The European Council is still not obliged to accept any of the candidates proposed by the European parties, but given that a deep mistrust of the EU exists among ordinary citizens, the heads of governments are painfully aware that to turn down a candidate put forward by the one body that is at least accountable to a wider electorate would, to say the least, be difficult to justify.
In its latest projection, VoteWatch Europe, a think tank and pollster, predicted the EPP would emerge as the largest single group, winning 213 seats, with the PES close behind registering 209 seats. This would represent an important swing towards the PES. In the outgoing parliament, the EPP held 78 more seats than the PES.
But attention is bound to be focused on the parties of the populist right. Significantly VoteWatch expects a new group to form - the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), from the transnational party of that name. This would probably comprise France's Front National, PVV from the Netherlands, FPO from Austria, Belgium's Flemish nationalists Vlaams Belang (VB), Italy's Lega Nord, SNS from Slovakia, and SD from Sweden. It takes at least 25 MEPs from seven countries to form a new group, but the think tank reckons EAF could form a block of as many as 39 seats.
Just as startling would be the projected doubling of the seats allied to the Europe of Freedom & Democracy (EFD) block, currently dominated by Britain's UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Weeks of horse-trading will follow the election results and no one can predict with certainty what the outcome will be. However, compared with the outgoing Parliament, the new EP is highly likely to be more polarized with more MEPs both on the radical left and far to the right of the EPP.
The EFD could even emerge as the fourth largest group, a remarkable achievement for a block of parties whose collective raison d'etre is to doubt the very viability of the European project, with some like UKIP simply demanding that Britain quits the EU as soon as possible.