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Skepticism And Contempt Color Upcoming European Parliament Elections

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EUROPEAN ELECTIONS
EU commissioners and Greek officials pose for a family photo outside the Zappeion Hall in Athens on Jan. 8, 2014, as Greece takes over the rotating European Union presidency for six months. | Louisa Gouliamaki via Getty Images
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Back in what now feels like another era, the European Union was a vessel of aspiration whose aims were largely supported by political leaders across the continent. Here was a super-nation constructed out of a collective yearning for shared security, prosperity and modernity.

In the contemporary conversation, talk of the European Union engenders suspicion and even contempt. The union sometimes seems to have devolved into a totem of discontents -- over the continued inflow of migrants from poorer countries, the expanding powers of bureaucrats in Brussels, and the very notion of tying one's national fortunes to the perceived dysfunction of broader Europe.

Against this backdrop, Europeans will head to the polls in May to determine who claims the seats in the European parliament, the legislature that convenes in Strasbourg and Brussels. Given abundant signs of Euroscepticism from London to Berlin, this once-every-five years electoral exercise appears to be shaping up as no less than a referendum on the merits of continuing on with the European Union itself.

The WorldPost has deployed its correspondents across Europe (via international editions of The Huffington Post) to produce a country-by-country report examining what is at stake in the European elections, and what issues are foremost in the political debate.

Distrust about the treaties and conventions that hold together modern Europe appear at an all-time high. Bruising battles over the terms of financial bailouts for Greece and Spain, the rules that ought to apply to banking going forward, the merits of economic austerity policies championed by Brussels, and disagreements over immigration have sown ill feelings and discord, while fueling a drive to reclaim national identities.

At a time in which much of Europe still confronts relatively weak economic prospects -- with unemployment stuck at depression levels in Spain and joblessness among young people a scourge nearly everywhere -- the conversation centers more on hanging on and digging out than forging a closer union.

In recent years, record numbers of eligible European voters have opted to skip the polls for parliament, in what analysts construe as an expression of ambivalence for the European Union -- if not outright rejection.

In the telling of some experts, the elections that will determine who occupies the European parliament tend to be more of a pageant than an exercise in real power. The consequential decision-making generally emanates from the European Council, which is comprised of heads of state and governing ministers from member nations.

That said, this year's European elections are shaping up as a significant gauge of the political mood across the continent. In France, Great Britain and elsewhere, the elections will be used as a platform by parties seeking to drum up support for pulling away from Europe's orbit while returning to parochial concerns.

Here is a central venue for the showdown between growing populist sentiments versus the historic campaign for enhanced European integration. The results are likely to shape national-level politics, which in turn will influence the future of Europe.

GREAT BRITAIN: A Test Of Euroscepticism

In Britain, all eyes will be on how the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) performs. The anti-immigration insurgent party that advocates Britain's withdrawal from the EU has had an extraordinary year. Led by Nigel Farage, it has seen its support rise from about 4 percent in 2012 to about 11 percent in 2013 -- despite having no members of the British parliament. At the last European elections in 2009, Ukip came second behind David Cameron's Conservative Party. This time it intends to win.

Rhetoric aside, the party's goal is not getting more of its people into the seats of the legislature in Strasbourg. Its real objective is using the European elections as a springboard for domestic electoral gain and securing its first Westminster parliament members. It hopes to use the elections as a lever to ramp up pressure for a referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union.

Ukip's deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, told HuffPost UK: "I am confident if we do well in May 2014 and top the poll it will give us huge momentum for the general election."

Even if Ukip falls short of first place in 2014, its impact will be far reaching. The party's effect on the political debate in Britain has been as much psychological as it has been numerical.

The biggest loser of any rise in support for Ukip is the Conservative Party. Even a small split in the center-right vote in the 2015 general election could be enough to deny the Tories a second term in power by allowing Ed Miliband's Labour Party through the middle.

Cameron, who took power as a modernizing liberal Tory, has tried to stem the tide by talking up his Eurosceptic credentials and tacking sharply to the right on immigration. The prime minister has promised an in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU by 2017 and a crackdown on supposed "benefit tourism" from Eastern Europe.

Despite the rightward tilt, Tory MPs remain nervous. One backbencher, resigned to an "embarrassing" third place in the European elections, told HuffPost UK that up to 100 Tory MPs representing marginal seats would be "panicky" in the event of a Ukip victory.

The Labour Party, while pro-EU, is deeply sensitive to looking 'weak' on immigration and has shifted to the right on the issue. Much of today's debate about Eastern European immigration stems from Labour's disastrous attempt to predict the number of Eastern Europeans who would move to the U.K. when Poland joined the EU in 2004. The government said 13,000 a year would travel to Britain seeking work. But this proved to be a wild underestimation -- in 2010, net migration was 252,000.

A strong showing for Ukip in 2014 will increase pressure on Miliband to commit to giving Britons the chance to vote the country out of the EU before 2017 -- -- a stance that could have impact if he manages to become prime minister.

But as Tom Mludzinski, from the market research company Ipsos MORI, notes, a Ukip victory is far from certain. "Much will depend on the mood of voters at the time," he said. "And with the economy improving and public optimism increasing, the frustration of voters and unpopularity of the government that Ukip has so effectively harnessed may not be such a big factor."

-- Ned Simons reporting from London

GERMANY: Immigration Backlash

German voters may be forgiven for feeling somewhat election-fatigued, giving little thought as yet to the upcoming European elections: Less than four months have transpired since they elected their national parliament, the Bundestag.

More deeply, anti-European Union sentiments have been intensifying as growing numbers of Germans decry "overregulation" from Brussels while complaining that domestic policy-making has been inappropriately constrained. Others hold a contrary view that nonetheless sows a similar form of apathy: The European parliament is for all intents an impotent body given that the European Council wields the real power. The media amplifies this impression by reporting at length on top officials and leaders while largely ignoring members of parliament.

All of that said, some European issues are being discussed with vigor in Germany, especially the reliably contentious question of continued migration from poorer EU countries to wealthier ones. This issue seems likely to dominate the campaign.

The Christian Social Union (CSU) -- the little sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's larger Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- will seek support by staking out a hard line against further immigration from other European countries. Citizens of EU member states have full access to the German labor market and don't require residency, work permits or visas. Now, people from Romania and Bulgaria are set to gain such rights. These two countries were admitted into the EU in 2007, but the right to freedom of movement for workers was restricted until the beginning of 2014. With the gates now open, the CSU is warning of an overwhelming influx of immigrants from the two countries, playing on fears that Germany's generous social welfare policies will be a magnet.

The party aims to impede the access of Romanians and Bulgarians into the German welfare system. According to a CSU document, it proposes a "general suspension of coverage for social security benefits during the first three months of residence in Germany."

The party is also calling for greater scrutiny of entrants. "If, for example, forged documents or benefit fraud should be discovered, a possibility must exist that the person in question not only be deported, but also barred from re-entry," the document declares -- a position encapsulated in a party slogan, "Wer betrügt, der fliegt," or "He who scams, flies."

This slogan has proven controversial, provoking broader discussion of appropriate immigration policies.

"The CSU should not poison our domestic policy," said politician Volker Beck of the Green Party. Bernd Riexinger, leader of the left, compared the CSU's plans to those of the extremist right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). He wrote on Twitter: "The Slogan, 'He who scams, flies' could also come from the NPD. This is nasty propaganda," adding that it effectively encourages violence against immigrants.

The CSU is a part of the three party ruling coalition, alongside the CDU and Social Democrats, that forms the new national government. Nevertheless, it appears unlikely that the CSU's plans will succeed, as Merkel does not favor stricter rules.

-- Jan David Sutthoff reporting from Munich

FRANCE: An Opportunity For Sovereigntist Parties

Across the ideological spectrum, establishment political parties in France are deeply concerned about the European elections, confronting what they view as the potential for another round of record low turnout combined with swelling support for populism.

In his New Year's address for 2014, French President François Hollande sought to spur the French public to engage by taking a strong stand in favor of Europe as a salve for what ails France.

"It is not by dismantling Europe that we will make the France of tomorrow," he said in a televised address. "It is by strengthening it so that it will protect us more."

Political analysts heard the speech as a warning cry that says much about the anticipated defeat of the Socialist Party, weighed down by the unpopularity of the government and the French disenchantment with the European Union.

The causes of French distrust for Brussels are complex and numerous. Topping the list are immigration, unemployment, the prospect of bringing Bulgaria and Romania into the union, and fiscal austerity measures imposed by the European Commission.

Regardless, the Socialists still aim to improve on their disastrous showing in the last European elections. The party had captured less than 19 percent of the ballot, wiped out by a union of right and center candidates and beaten at the last minute by the environmentalists.

"In the European elections, we will do better than last time," said Socialist Parliamentarian Jean-Christophe Cambadélis. "You can say that won't be difficult, but it is still necessary in order to have a majority in the European parliament that is a majority of the left."

After finishing first in 2009, the right-leaning Union for Popular Movement (UMP) is likely to face competition from centrists of the Democratic Movement and the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI), running separately in 2013. The Green Party will have a hard time repeating its feat of five years ago, as it has been undermined by divisions and deprived of the leadership of parliament member Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

But for all of these players, the real threat lies in the rise of anti-liberal and sovereignist parties. On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Front de Gauche hopes to gain votes by condemning an overly-liberal Europe. On the far right, Marine Le Pen dreams of making the National Front "the first party of France" by winning an election that has traditionally been very favorable to her political faction.

Non-participation by voters, which may exceed 65 percent in May, is likely to increase the impact of the most anti-European parties on the elections. The elections will also be partially eclipsed in France by the municipal elections, which will be held only two months before the European ones.

In response, the Socialist Party has sought to somewhat refresh its candidates, poaching former trade unionist Edouard Martin to lead the battle in eastern France. And Hollande himself is expected to get involved in the fray. Presenting himself as "the beneficiary of all the generations that fought for Europe," the president announced that he would undertake "initiatives next spring with Germany to give more strength to our union." But will it be enough?

-- Geoffroy Clavel reporting from Paris

SPAIN: The Politics Of Depression

The European elections are approaching just as Spain seems to have left behind both the financial crisis and the need for rescue by the eurozone. Yet the social crisis that has defined recent times seems starker than ever. The unemployment rate remains at an alarming 25.9 percent, with almost six million people officially jobless. Hundred of thousands of people, many of them young, are abandoning the country in search of better futures in other European countries or in Latin America.

Since November 2011, when the center-right Popular Party took power, Spain has seen no elections. The ruling party now hopes the European elections will affirm public support for its tenure, which has been marked by strict measures of austerity and budget-cutting in the name of shrinking the deficit.

According to Rafael Hernando, one of the party's representatives, the last two years have been "hard," but unpopular measures such as tax increases have been confirmed as "absolutely necessary" in order to "reduce the deficit." The government has seen its approval ratings fall as economic fortunes have fallen still further, but nonetheless expresses confidence that voters will ratify its chosen course.

The Socialist Party -- known as the PSOE -- aims to use the elections to reclaim support it surrendered in 2011, when it was swept from power in national polls.

"Things are starting to change," said the head of the PSOE, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, whose leadership is questioned within his own party. "I am convinced that this new year will confirm this change of tendency, and that the European elections are going to demonstrate that we socialists have returned," he declared in a letter to his political affiliates.

Matters that are decided in Brussels -- such as the budget of the European Union, the reforms of the financial sector and the control of migration flows -- do not form part of the electoral debate, which is largely centered on national matters. Moreover, the two major parties have generally pursued similar policies in the European parliament.

Yet this perception that the two major parties are essentially the same when it comes to the European parliament has created an opening for minority parties. The most recent survey suggests that the People's Party will win and that it will take almost 9 points away from the Socialists. The United Left -- which stakes out terrain to the left of the Socialists -- and the Union, Progress and Democracy Party have also been capturing greater support with more radical and populist appeals.

-- Daniel Basteiro reporting from Madrid

ITALY: 'They Are All Corrupt'

Italians appear united in their disgust with years of stultifying economic malaise against the ceaseless theater of political dysfunction. Even as economists express tempered confidence that 2014 could be the year when fortunes improve, the European elections are shaping up as a likely platform for public dismay.

The economic and financial crisis of recent years has changed the lives, routines and perspectives of millions of Italians who are without work, and who are becoming increasingly poor. This has altered views about politics and institutions, with distrust growing exponentially. "They are all corrupt" is a phrase often heard on the streets. Years of public sector malfeasance, frenzied spending and the paralysis of national and local governments has profoundly changed the relationship between elected officials and their electorates. A recent survey by the sociologist Ilvo Diamanti showed that only 10 percent of Italians have faith in political parties.

Within this conversation, the European Union is generally cast as a villain, one blamed for austerity-minded economic policies that have weakened Italy's growth prospects along with its social balance. The looming European elections present a gauge of the national mood in which Euroscepticism may be reinforced.

Matteo Renzi, the young new secretary of the center-left Democratic Party, seeks to reignite the enthusiasm and interest of Italian voters by revamping the old system. The European elections offer a crucial test. Although Renzi aims to downplay the importance of this vote, he knows that the results will have significance beyond just the numbers. A big victory for the Democratic Party could affirm his leadership position not only within the Italian left, but also at the head of the government at the end of current Prime Minister Enrico Letta's mandate.

On the other hand, his defeat could coincide with the success of a model that is antithetical to traditional political parties: the Five Star Movement. Born on the Internet and led by the ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, the Five Star Movement had huge success in the last Italian elections, bringing ordinary citizens selected via the Internet into parliament with the rallying cry, "Send Them Packing!"

Now Grillo's movement, determined to export its revolution to Brussels, is taking on European distrust as well as the euro. Grillo has criticized the single currency multiple times, calling for a referendum to allow Italians to choose whether or not they want to stop using it. Success for the Five Star Movement in the upcoming elections could indicate a move toward major changes, as well as a strong feeling of unease toward European institutions.

-- Andrea Punzo reporting from Rome

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