French and German elections make 2002 a pivotal year for continental politics – but so do other polls, in countries like Ireland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and even Ukraine.
Nothing lasts forever: German Chancellor Schröder, left with French President Chirac, centre and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin
From Paris to Kiev, the issues gripping Europe all relate to European integration. Once a complicated and obscure administrative process - harmonising national laws and calibrating economies in a growing common market - has turned into a political event. Voters have begun to feel, embrace or fear, the consequences.
This doesn’t mean the elections taking place across the continent in 2002 are all the same. Circumstances vary. But the same issues pop up everywhere.
Immigration and national identity, perhaps Europe’s oldest, dirtiest issue, has come back with a vengeance. In countries like France and Germany, the question is how many immigrants, how fast, and under what conditions. At stake is the preservation of nations despite multicultural influx.
In eastern Europe, meanwhile, political parties concern themselves with renewing nations whose identities were diluted, even destroyed, during years of communist rule.
National politics takes on an economic tone, as well. As Danish elections showed in late 2001, small European countries are keen to retain sovereignty even within the European Union. Big ones like Germany on the other hand are keen not to sacrifice might just for the sake of union.
It’s a balancing act.
Social Democrats touting policies of the centre-left, enjoyed huge electoral success in the 1990s – from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s "Third Way", to the French socialists route to cohabitation under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, to German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s triumph over veteran conservative Helmut Kohl. In those elections, analysts saw parallels to Bill Clinton’s achievements in the United States, "stealing the centre" and with it the political prerogative.
So could 2002 be the year of a backlash? Some of this year’s elections could have big consequences.
Take Ireland, for instance, where a vote against the government could undo the country’s support for European enlargement, jeopardising the whole process.
At the ballot box, even the small countries count.
Below a look at the European countries that are going to the polls this year.