Earthquakes are rarely predicted. But when they happen, we cannot help but take note of the devastation and try our utmost to repair it.
It must say something about the state of the European Union that exactly the opposite seems to be happening. The earthquake caused in the elections to the European Parliament by a rising anti-EU sentiment was predicted well in advance - and came to pass much as predicted. Yet it seems that many so-called "mainstream" politicians are determined not to notice that anything has happened.
In most European countries we have, as expected, seen a rise in the Eurosceptic vote - most noticeably in France and the UK where the National Front and Ukip emerged as the largest respective parties. Different interpretations abound as to both what drove the outcome across Europe and what meaning we should attach to the election results. No doubt there is a complex interaction between domestic politics and a toxic mixture of disinterest and anger at the current functioning of the EU.
At a broad level, there are two ways of interpreting these results. The first is the 'business as usual' idea. Proponents of this view say 'pro-European' parties won approximately 520 out of 751 seats (though what one chooses to classify as 'pro-European' is up for debate). Further, for the first time, there was no further fall in voter turnout. For the optimists, this is a good result that means that the EU in its current form has the broad support of the public and can proceed as normal. No earthquake ever happened.
The second interpretation is that Eurosceptic parties of many different shades increased their share of the vote substantially while many 'mainstream' parties have themselves increasingly become EU critics. This should all serve as a wake up call. Voter turnout remains at 43% on average across the continent. In four of the five largest countries, turnout was below 50%. All this casts further doubt on the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament. Maybe more important is the fact that Eurosceptic parties may, in some countries, now be in a position to pose a significant threat in domestic elections. Should this prove to be the case, the threat to the EU project would be real and substantial.
National leaders have now moved on to the next chapter - the election of the new president of the European Commission. It is here, I fear, that the fate of the EU project will be determined. Some commentators have argued that the selection of any candidate other than Jean-Claude Juncker would represent a repudiation of European democracy. In Germany Professor Jürgen Habermas, a philosopher, has stated that rejection of Mr Junker "would be a bullet to the heart of the European project." Some in the UK have made similar arguments. These commentators are wrong - and for many reasons.
The European Parliament is not the legitimate democratic representative body of the European people. With such a low voter turnout, it does not have anywhere near the legitimacy of domestic parliaments and national political leaders. In most countries, it is still considered an expensive political sideshow. It is for this reason that, if we are to respect Europe's democratic principles, decision making must ultimately remain with the leaders of national governments in the European Council. Furthermore, the Treaty of Lisbon explicitly vests the nomination of Commission president with the European Council - albeit subject to approval by the European Parliament. While stating that the European Council must "take account" of the results of the parliamentary elections when nominating its candidate, there is no explicit requirement to pick one of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten.
After the election, Mr Juncker was reported to have stated that he 'won the election.' Such a statement is laughable. I wonder how many voters who cast their vote across Europe had even ever heard of Mr Juncker? I wonder how many had any idea which parliamentary grouping the party they were voting for belonged to? I wonder how many thought that, in casting their vote, they were casting a vote for or against Mr Juncker as president of the European Commission. It is statements like that of Mr Juncker that turn European democracy into a farce.
As national leaders look towards nominating their candidate, they face a decision that will likely determine the future success or failure of the European project. If such a decision were to be degraded into nothing more than a power play between the European Council and the European Parliament, then citizens across the continent would be right to become ever more disillusioned with the EU project. They could ignore the rise of Eurosceptic parties, play the game 'by the numbers' and nominate Mr Juncker. I suggest that this would be a historic mistake that will likely lead to a slow and painful unravelling of the Union over the next few decades. Mr Juncker would no doubt bring decades of experience and a proven ability to negotiate compromises in difficult situations. Yet he is the ultimate insider - the face of the past and, for many citizens, the perfect embodiment of all that is wrong with the Union. His appointment would vindicate the first interpretation of the European election results - nothing has happened; it's business as usual.
However one interprets the election results, there is little doubt that the European project needs re-energizing. It needs fresh faces, fresh ideas and, above all, fresh hope and inspiration. Tony Blair achieved that for Britain in the late 1990s. Matteo Renzi has recently provided such inspiration and hope in Italy leading his party to an overwhelming 40% share of the vote in these European elections. If Europe is to succeed, it needs faces, characters and personalities that can create hope and inspiration for a 21st century future freed from the dull, stultifying bureaucracy of its past.
Yes, the Council and Parliament could opt for an easy life as we head into the warm summer - avoid a showdown and take the lazy option of appointing Mr Juncker. That would be a choice to ignore the obvious malaise affecting the EU and the growing dissatisfaction of its citizenry. Such a choice would, one could argue, fail to take into account fully the results of the European elections as required by the Lisbon Treaty.
In the longer-term the result of choosing Mr Juncker may best have been described by one Eurosceptic politician: "The more they ignore us, the stronger we will become."Suggest a correction