BRUSSELS Europe's political landscape will take clearer shape in the coming week as the two main centrist political groups select candidates for the European Commission presidency in U.S.-style "primaries" aimed at making the vote more relevant to citizens.
Attracting more public interest is seen as vital given polls pointing to a major increase in votes for far-left, far-right and anti-EU protest parties, venting discontent with years of economic crisis, rising unemployment and low growth.
Meeting in Rome on Saturday, the center-left Socialists and Democrats, the second-largest group in the European Parliament, will pick Germany's Martin Schulz as their choice to be the next Commission president after elections in May.
And on March 7 in Dublin, the center-right European People's Party, now the largest force in European politics, will vote for their candidate, with former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker expected to get the nod.
The European elections will take place in all 28 EU member states from May 22-25.
The political conventions are part of an effort to make the vote more meaningful to citizens, creating the sense that the Commission, with its sweeping powers over EU legislation, is in some capacity in their hands.
The Commission is one of the most powerful EU institutions, with the sole right to propose laws for the bloc. But the European Parliament has also gained clout since the introduction of a new EU treaty in 2009, giving it more say in how legislation is shaped. It is also the only democratically elected body for the union's 500 million citizens.
Behind the efforts of the mainstream parties to establish "primaries", much in the way the Republicans and Democrats do in the United States, the overriding concern is how to handle the challenge from the protest parties come May.
The greatest challenge comes from the far-right, with Marine Le Pen's anti-immigrant National Front likely to win the elections in France and the anti-Islam PVV, headed by Geert Wilders, likely to top the polls in the Netherlands.
Le Pen and Wilders have agreed to ally in the European Parliament and are likely to get support from four other far-right parties, putting them close to forming a group, which requires at least 25 seats across seven EU member states.
If they were able to form a bloc, it would give them a powerful platform in parliament and a significant seat at the table, even if mainstream parties are still likely to end up with 70 percent of the seats in the legislature.
But, while the election will be more high-profile than any dating back to the first direct one in 1979, it will still not involve a straightforward choice for the Commission president.
Instead, the vote will decide who gets how many seats in the 751-seat European Parliament, with the largest group able to make the strongest initial claim on the Commission post, which will ultimately be determined in backroom dealings among European leaders followed by a vote in the Strasbourg assembly.
The latest polls suggest the Socialists will make strong gains in May, dislodging the EPP from the top spot as voters shift away from the center-right after 10 years of its dominating European decision-making.
Simon Hix, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics and a leading analyst of polling data, says the vote remains too close to call, but it is clear that non-mainstream parties on the extremes of the spectrum will do well.
That will force the major parties in the middle, like the Socialists, EPP and the Liberals, to cooperate more closely.
"We're going to see a grand coalition in the next parliament because of the squeezing of the center and the forcing of the two main groups to work together," Hix said.
In Rome, Schulz, the current president of the European Parliament, will set out his electoral stall, putting youth employment, education and investment in renewable energy and technology at the heart of his campaign.
Similar broad positions are likely to be sketched out by the EPP in Dublin, although the main focus of their gathering will be a vote to decide on their choice for the Commission.
The pro-business Liberal alliance, the third largest group in the parliament, has already chosen Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium, as their candidate.
The other concern in the back of the mind of Schulz and whoever emerges as the EPP's top candidate for the Commission is whether it really means they are best placed to get the job.
On May 27, two days after the elections, EU leaders will meet in Brussels to discuss how to handle the results and fill the top EU jobs, not just the Commission presidency but the president of the European Council, the high representative for foreign affairs and potentially the president of the Eurogroup.
While in theory whichever group wins the election is best placed to secure the Commission presidency, in actuality it is unlikely to be straightforward. EU leaders must agree among themselves on the name and then put it to a vote in parliament.
While Schulz will be hoping that if the Socialists win in May he is well placed, it still requires the support of a qualified majority of EU leaders, and there are doubts about whether Britain or even his native Germany would back him.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)