As European elections loom, parties struggle for attention

BRUSSELS Wed May 7, 2014 9:31am EDT

A man visits the plenary room of the European Parliament during an open day in Strasbourg May 4, 2014. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

A man visits the plenary room of the European Parliament during an open day in Strasbourg May 4, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Vincent Kessler

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - In a little over two weeks, in a vast exercise spread over four days and 28 countries, as many as 350 million Europeans will go to the polls to vote in elections to the European Parliament, the EU's only directly elected body.

As celebrations of democracy go, it approaches the United States, Brazil or India for scale, at least in terms of numbers - an opportunity for huge swathes of Europe's population to determine who will shape the continent for years to come.

And yet, despite Europeans having directly elected their own parliament since 1979, there is very little 'buzz' on the streets of Brussels or other EU capitals ahead of the May 22-25 vote. Turnout is expected to fall for the seventh time in a row, dropping to just over 40 percent, pollsters predict.

That is largely a reflection of the greater importance individuals attach to national politics and parliaments, which tend to have a more direct impact on their lives and whose candidates are more immediately recognizable.

The European Union, with its glass and steel institutions clustered in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, feels distant to many European voters.

That sense of detachment has raised questions about the democratic legitimacy of the European project, especially after a prolonged economic crisis when critical decisions were taken behind closed doors by leaders and unelected officials, not by members of parliament - much to parliament's own frustration.

Popular perceptions of a remote, unaccountable EU elite, combined with years of painful economic austerity, are expected to boost support for far-right, anti-EU political parties in many member states such as France, the Netherlands and Hungary.

In an effort to close the perception gap and increase the relevance of this election - the first since parliament won more powers under the 2009 Lisbon treaty - leading political parties have nominated a top candidate to become European Commission president, arguably the most influential job in Brussels.

"For the first time these could be genuine 'European' elections, the outcome of which will shape European politics for at least the next five years," Simon Hix, an EU specialist at the London School of Economics, wrote in an analysis.

TOO CLOSE TO EUROPE?

The candidates from the top four party groups - the centre-right EPP, the centre-left Socialists & Democrats, the Liberal ALDE group and the Greens - have faced off in a handful of televised debates, with the final one set for May 15.

Held in English - the second or third language of all the candidates - the debates are a valiant effort to take Europe to the people, but it is a tall order: with 24 official EU languages, it is not easy to generate buzz and draw prime-time viewers in Romania or Spain, let alone eurosceptical Britain.

What is more, the candidates are hardly household names, and rather than representing a new face for Europe after years of stagnant growth and rising unemployment, they are mostly old-school Europeans closely tied to the work of Brussels.

The centre-right have chosen Jean-Claude Juncker, 59, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and a long-time believer in a more federal Europe, an idea that has lost traction as voters question the goal of ever-closer integration.

The centre-left, who are marginally ahead in most polls, are backing Germany's Martin Schulz, 58, the current president of the European Parliament and an ardent campaigner for more money to be spent helping young people get jobs.

The Liberal candidate is Guy Verhofstadt, 61, a former prime minister of Belgium and one of the European Parliament's most enthusiastic supporters of deeper integration.

The Greens are rallying behind Germany's Ska Keller, 32, the only woman in the race and a specialist on migration.

While Twitter and other social media have helped raise the profile of the election and the candidates this time around - Twitter was not actively used in 2009 - it tends mostly to act as an echo chamber, keeping those who are digitally savvy and actively interested in EU politics plugged in to developments.

The tens of millions of older voters who do not use social media and do not speak English as a second or third language are largely outside the process, at least until the polls open.

Further complicating matters, there is no automatic guarantee that any of the four candidates hoping to become Commission president will get the job, which would give them influence over EU legislation and the direction of Europe.

Ultimately, it is the EU's 28 national leaders who must agree together on a name. The European Parliament will then have to approve their choice by a majority.

The innovation from the Lisbon treaty is that the leaders have to take into account the results of the European elections in making their choice. If the Socialists win the elections, it will be very hard to ignore their candidate for the Commission.

All that will only be decided in the wake of the elections, possibly at a summit of EU leaders to be held on May 27, when they will meet for dinner to discuss the poll results.

In the meantime, the parties will be hoping that more Europeans than in the past actually turn out to vote this month, perhaps giving the elections the legitimacy they crave.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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