WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — As voters begin casting ballots for the European Parliament over four days through Sunday, it appears likelier than ever that it will be the election itself and not the new Parliament that brings any change to Europe.
To the extent that polls are accurate, the conservative bloc headed by former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker will emerge as the largest group in the Parliament, making Juncker the leading candidate to become president of the European Commission.
In his dual role as Luxembourg’s prime minister and finance minister, Juncker not only took part in the European Union summits that ultimately determine EU policy, but headed the Eurogroup of finance ministers that enforced a strict austerity regime during the past five years of the euro crisis.
Even though Juncker has burbled along about unemployment during the campaign, it is highly unlikely that 59-year-old politician will do anything to rock the euro
So even though extremist parties on the left and right have visions of gaining significant influence in the European Parliament, the limited powers of that body and the likelihood that little will change in Brussels means that the biggest impact of the election will be on domestic politics — and that in turn may herald changes in the EU.
This is particularly true in two of Europe’s biggest countries, France and the U.K., where nationalist, euroskeptic parties are leading in the polls.
The U.K. Independence Party, which can never get a member into the British Parliament with that country’s first-past-the-post voting system, is delirious at the prospect of getting the biggest number of British seats under the European Parliament’s proportional voting system.
According to Pollwatch, UKIP may capture 30% of the vote, giving it 24 seats, ahead of the Labour Party’s 26% and 22 seats, in a European Parliament with 751 members.
The UKIP victory would come at the expense of the two parties in the U.K.’s center-right government, the Conservative Party, projected to get 23%, and the Liberal Democrats, polling at 8%.
The surge by UKIP and its colorful leader, Nigel Farage, has already put pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to move to the right, prompting him last year to promise a referendum on Britain leaving the EU.
In France, another colorful leader, Marine Le Pen, is poised to lead her far-right National Front party to victory, winning the biggest contingent of French seats with 23%-24% of the vote, two points ahead of the center-right UMP, according to the polls.
Le Pen has ambitions of forming a new far-right political group in the European Parliament, but her main objective is to create credibility and momentum for the French national elections in 2017.
In the meantime, the National Front’s popularity is overshadowing an ineffective President François Hollande and pushing both his Socialist Party and the UMP to the right as well, especially on the question of immigration.
If Le Pen continues to gain traction in France with her anti-EU message, this will have repercussions far beyond the arcane workings of the European Parliament.
In Greece, Alexis Tsipras’s far-left Syriza party is polling at close to 30%. Tsipras said this week that a clear victory of four to six points over the New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras — currently polling at 26% — would create pressure for a snap election in the country, which he would expect to win.
While Greece may be a relatively small and marginal country in the EU, its pivotal role in the euro crisis magnifies the importance of any political upheaval there.
Tsipras does not advocate Greece leaving the euro or the EU, but he does insist there must be a radical change in policies, starting with the draconian austerity imposed on the Greek people as a condition for the bailout to repay its foreign creditors.
Protest and euro-skeptic parties are leading in other countries as well, or nipping at the heels of the governing parties.
Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement is still polling second in Italy behind the Democratic Party despite disappointment with his performance after capturing 25% of vote in last year’s national elections.
In the Netherlands, Finland, and Czech Republic, among others, far-right nationalist parties are polling well, which will have an impact in these countries long after the European Parliament has gone back to sleep.
It is difficult to say how accurate the European Parliament polls are, stretching over 28 countries for a vote that is sparking little enthusiasm. If the protest parties actually score as well as forecast, however, the momentum created in numerous member countries may indeed foreshadow some real change in the EU.
Also read these MarketWatch stories: