It is very interesting to look at photos of Europe, taken at night via satellite. White, shiny splotches clearly indicate the most developed areas – the Benelux countries, the Paris area, the Ruhr region and the Rhine Valley. The Po River plain sparkles too as do Rome, its suburbs and the Gulf of Naples.

Great Britain, Madrid, Barcelona and the Portuguese coast are bathed in light. In central Europe, the brightest spot is Silesia. Prague can be seen as well as Budapest, Warsaw and Gdansk. Athens and Belgrade also shimmer. A belt of light lines the Bosporus and fabulous Istanbul. In Romania, Bucharest – the most lit up zone – is linked to Ploieşti [56km north] and further away, a pale line cuts through the Carpathian Mountains all the way to Braşov. Further east, there are a few white dots (Kiev, Minsk) all the way to Moscow, which is an island of white lost in the vastness of Russia.

The EU Parliament has decided to make this photo the poster for the elections, scheduled for next spring, with the slogan "Act. React. Impact." A picture is worth a thousand words.

Europe's glow dims

On the photo, hundreds of thousands of light spots trace the outline of the EU which is much more lit up, on the whole, than are eastern Europe or North Africa. Despite its problems the EU remains a better place than many others on Earth or so seem to imply those who designed the poster. Yet, upon closer inspection, the European glow tends to dim a bit.

The euro crisis, austerity – and its inherent social problems – as well as questions on the durability of the European social model have weakened the credibility of all European institutions

The euro crisis, austerity – and its inherent social problems – as well as questions on the durability of the European social model have weakened the credibility of all European institutions. In fact, they question the credibility of the European project as a whole.

According to the latest Eurobarometer published in July 2013, the number of Europeans who no longer trust the EU is higher than 60 per cent. That is double what it was in 2007, before the crisis began. In the June 2009 EU elections, the participation rate was barely over 43 per cent, much lower than the 60 to 70 per cent participation rate in national elections current in advanced democracies. Although the EU Parliament's powers were reinforced under the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, a lower participation rate than the one in 2009 would seriously question its legitimacy.

For the first time, EU citizens will have the opportunity to vote for a parliament which will have the chance to vote on who becomes the next EU Commission President for the next five years. The EU Council will propose a candidate for the post, in accordance with the results of the EU Parliamentary elections. Candidates for the EU presidency will thus have to seek support within member states, as do local politicians during national elections. This should stimulate debate and make citizens better aware of European issues.

European parliament is always involved

But the European parliament has already been involved in crucial decisions for the citizens of the EU: the drive to rein in budgetary misconduct, the response to the sovereign debt crisis, the breaking of the link between both of these and public debt. And that is not to mention the role played by the European Parliament in the adoption of the EU budget. Parliament has also given a green light to the new Common Agricultural Policy and the future governance of the Schengen Area.

The biggest challenge for the next mandate will depend on the orientation of the post-crisis EU parliament

In recent years, European institutions have responded to certain political challenges posed by the misconduct of some member states with regard to standards of democracy and the rule of law. And on this point, Hungary and Romania have been on top of the list, even though the former state was the only one to become the subject of a resolution of the European Parliament. The biggest challenge for the next mandate will depend on the orientation of the post-crisis EU parliament. Will we have a more united European Union that is closer to a "United States of Europe"? Will we have a more or less integrated union of states? Or on the contrary will we see a dissolution of the Union? This amounts to a major challenge in our rather troubled times.

In reality, extremism is gaining ground — and this not only a matter of growing support for "marginal" groups. Traditional parties are borrowing the language of extremists in a desperate attempt to stop a haemorrhage of votes. Some have succeeded to a certain extent, others have not. But one thing is certain: more national elections are won by campaigns that oppose the EU rather than those that support it.

Extremism in the dark places of nation states

In Austria, the "grand coalition" between socialists and Christian democrats succeeded in conserving a fragile majority in the wake of elections. But the Freedom Party (FPÖ), which was founded by Jörg Haider, was the only movement to register any gains (21.4 per cent — an increase of more than 3 per cent when compared with previous elections). And let’s not forget this is Austria, a country that can take pride in the lowest rate of unemployment in the EU, and one which has survived the crisis without too much damage, precisely because of the enlargement of the EU!

And what about Greece? A country where political crime has emerged on the streets, and where the arrest of the leaders of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, has only served to boost the group's “popularity”. In France, the launch of campaigns for municipal elections in March has demonstrated the eagerness with which the centre-right UMP and the Socialist Party will draw on the propaganda arsenal of the Front National.

The patches of light on the promotional poster for the European elections speak volumes, but the question is to what extent will the sombre political realities of the continent overshadow their message.