Populists to make inroads in EU parliament election

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Far-right and populist candidates are expected to make significant inroads in May European Parliament elections, but traditional parties are holding their ground despite debt crisis fatigue.

While the strong anti-Europe rhetoric of many candidates may attract headlines, polls suggest there is steady underlying support for the EU among the bloc's more than 400 million voters.

According to Eurobarometer, an EU-funded survey of public sentiment, 59 per cent of respondents were happy to describe themselves as "citizens of the EU".

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso argued recently it was not "intellectually fair" to say there was a problem with European institutions.

"This is a general crisis of confidence in the elites: the citizen feels he is far from those who are making the decisions," Barroso told a heated public debate in Brussels.

For the first time, the far-right is likely to win enough seats to gain official party status, giving it a greater visibility and more resources with which to pursue its largely anti-EU agenda.

But at most, they and similar parties may get 20 per cent of the seats, meaning that their arrival in the chamber may affect the atmospherics more than legislative outcomes.

If anti-European populists such as Italy's Five-Star Movement or Britain's UKIP chalk up gains in May, Parliament will still be dominated by four strongly pro-European parties, accounting for perhaps 70 per cent of seats.

A majority of EU nations are conservatives, members of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) or right-leaning ALDE.

But polls suggest the centre-left Socialist and Democrats (S&D) will emerge from the vote as the largest party in Parliament.

This could spark an institutional showdown between Parliament, the EU's only directly elected institution, and a right-leaning Council - which groups EU leaders - adding to a seemingly never-ending war of words over who has the moral authority to run the EU.

The choice of Commission president will come down to whether the European Council, representing EU member states, can agree on the candidate backed by the new parliament or will go its own way instead.

The Council may opt to ignore Parliament's wishes and choose its own candidate, with the International Monetary Fund's current managing director and former French government minister Christine Lagarde regarded as a possible outside candidate.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz, whom the S&D has chosen as its candidate to lead the Commission, recently laid the blame for the decline in the EU's public approval squarely at the feet of the Council.

"If you are the most powerful institution, the most powerful body, and the popularity of the EU is falling, does that concern you?," Schulz asked.

Schulz's often feisty defence of Parliament and his claim that other EU institutions do not share its democratic legitimacy has put him at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sparking speculation Germany may oppose his appointment to head the Commission.

Meanwhile, on Friday an EPP party conference in Ireland chose as its own candidate Jean-Claude Juncker, who was prime minister of Luxemburg between 1995 and 2013 and who is likely to be a more attractive choice for Germany's centre-right government.

The choice for the top job is inevitably linked to another three key appointments - the president, or speaker, of Parliament, Council President and the increasingly influential top diplomatic post.

Whoever is chosen for the role of Commission president, he or she will have to be mindful of the criticism levelled at Barroso, who was said to have not distanced himself sufficiently from the member states which appointed him.

The argument over who runs the EU, whether the elected parliament or the member state-appointed Commission, is also likely to worsen, as the EU takes on a more prominent role in foreign affairs and pursues the unfinished business of closer economic integration.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.