By Alex Stevenson
After the turmoil of the last five years, this spring's European elections will be a crucial test of British thinking about attitudes to the continent.
Circumstances have conspired to make the June 4th poll a key opportunity to take the temperature of UK attitudes to the European project.
Are we becoming more committed to the EU's institutions and values? Have we been turned off by Brussels' political introversion? Or are we as lukewarm and indifferent as ever?
On the face of it, the torrid time suffered by Europe since the last elections in 2004 is likely to polarise opinion one way or the other.
Institutional navel-gazing after the rejection of the European constitution was followed by a momentous political effort at reform in the Lisbon treaty. Its rejection by the Irish has kicked its overall ratification into the long grass for now. The EU is unreformed and miserable about it as a result.
Then there's the recession. The eurozone has been in official recession since October last year, the first such disaster since the introduction of the single currency in 1999. Protectionism has cast its threatening shadow over Europe. Calls for a strong financial regulation system at continental level, going beyond what is being considered globally, are raising eyebrows in some quarters.
And finally we face Britain's convoluted, complicated relationship with Europe. The opt-outs remain in place; popular euroscepticism backs up this equivocal stance as the UK teeters between its Atlantic and continental commitments. There has been no wild swing in public opinion in the last five years.
How this backdrop translates into votes for the 72 MEPs Britain will send to the continent this spring remains to be seen, however. As the campaign begins in earnest, all is still to play for.
Time to cash in
From the above you might expect the eurosceptics to do especially well. But things are never as simple as that; in particular the meteoric success of the UK Independence party (Ukip) in 2004 will be difficult to repeat in 2009. Five years ago, in large part thanks to the political magnetism of their leader Robert Kilroy Silk, they won an impressive 12 seats.
Clinging on to those will be tough. Bob Spink, the independent MP for Castle Point, is supportive of Ukip on foreign policy matters. He outlined why he thinks voters worried about excessive powers will continue to turn their backs on the "unaccountable bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels".
"The three main political parties are all euro-friendly and seem to be happy to give powers away and subsidise other nations through the net £15 billions EU membership costs our country," he said.
Mr Spink was particularly disparaging of the Conservatives, the party he abandoned last March. He claimed David Cameron's Tories were far from eurosceptic and were seeking to prevent such candidates being selected in winnable seats.
"If people really want to stop the flow of powers [to Brussels]. the only way to service that is to vote Ukip. Any other vote will send the wrong message to the three main parties."
Reform of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy are Ukip priorities. The North American Free Trade Agreement also looks attractive as an alternative trading group for Britain. And then there's the furore over British jobs for British workers, which came to a head with wildcat strikes at Lincolnshire's Lindsey oil refinery earlier this year.
"There's nothing jingoistic about British jobs for British workers," Mr Spink insisted. "The French and the Italians - they play the game, we don't. We're being taken to the cleaners."
The frustrated left
There's no denying the political potency of that message. Yet if right-wing parties like Ukip are worried at defending their impressive results last time, that's nothing to the problems faced by Labour. In 2004 the party slumped to just 22.6 per cent of the national vote, losing six seats in the process. Privately many supporters fear this year will be just as bad - if not worse.
Part of the reason for this, London's leading Labour MEP Claude Moraes explained, is because getting the pro-European message across is that much more difficult.
"The reality of the UK today is when you fight that pro-European campaign you are going to come up against a number of barriers," he said.
"I think all journalists would accept those barriers exist. But I think if it seeps into the culture then there's an issue."
Mr Moraes said a gap existed between the importance of European issues and their coverage in British reporting, citing temporary agency workers' rights, climate change, and working time as key issues currently affecting the UK.
"Very often when things are reported, if it's a good piece of legislation people see it as a good fine piece of British legislation. If it doesn't work, it's come from the EU."
How to respond to this problem? Mark Hendrick, a former MEP and now Labour's MP for Preston, believes a remorselessly positive campaign is the way forward.
In a recent comment piece for politics.co.uk Mr Hendrick said the "forces of the right" were being given political fuel by recent events.
"The coming European elections present Labour with the ideal opportunity to establish once and for all its pro-European credentials in a way that it has never done before to throw off-balance our opposition parties," he wrote.
"By Labour unashamedly asserting its pro-European credentials it can capture the majority support of the nation that is in tune with all of the values that we as a European social democratic party stand for."
Whether Mr Hendrick is right in asserting that Labour can rely on the "decent, well-meaning, fair-minded, humanitarian and compassionate people" he believes will support this stance remains to be seen.
It's no surprise many, like Mr Hendrick, feel an aggressively positive campaign outlining why Britain needs a strong Europe is needed. As he explained: "If Europe didn't exist at the moment it would have to have been invented. Only by working together can we create this zone of stability."
Mr Moraes, too, is committed to such an approach - a campaign on "European achievements and the value of the EU intrinsically as a project - a community of values".
The frustration, however, is that deeply entrenched caution continues to bedevil their efforts to make political progress. Mr Hendrick added: "What we've got to say to voters is the second world war finished 60 years ago - there are still people on the backbenches of both parties who think we're fighting it."
Labour is not the only party coping with these problems. The Liberal Democrats also underperformed in 2004, being pushed into fourth place by Ukip's success. Party officials worry Nick Clegg's candidates will suffer again at the hands of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-placed parties.
But the Lib Dems' elections organiser Willie Rennie thinks otherwise. He plans a campaign of "differentiation", showing his party stands out from the crowd. The "dangers of isolation" he associates with the main eurosceptic parties will be mocked. And "Labour's recession" will be pinned against the national governing party.
"They're unable to negotiate effectively on the world stage - Gordon Brown bungles relationships a lot," Mr Rennie said. "We think we're far better placed."
It's true the Lib Dems' traditional internationalist stance is well-suited to the European vote. But it has been suggested in the past that getting out the activists for such large constituencies has proved difficult. Mr Rennie disagrees. "What we've been saying is you get more bang for your buck," he enthuses. With turnout so low across the board, every voter who comes out to vote can make a big difference.
Yet the presence of a plethora of other contenders - the British National party (BNP) are a constant threat while the Greens are defending two seats - makes this far from a two- or even three-horse race. This is no straightforward battle between eurosceptics and pro-Europeans. And this time round another new party is putting forward its own views about where to go next.
Earlier this month Libertas launched its plans to field candidates in each of the EU's 27 member states.
The party's chairman, Declan Ganley, was a leading figure in the campaign to reject the Lisbon treaty. He appears not to have moved on since then. At the launch Mr Ganley insisted he was pro-European but remained overwhelmingly disgusted by the lack of democracy, accountability and transparency in the European project.
No policy details were presented at the launch - no blueprint on how Mr Ganley would seek to reform the European project. So it's too early to say whether Libertas will make a substantial impact. Yet it presence only adds to the confusing picture we face in the approach to June 4th.
The home front
One further complication needs noting. This is that, like it or not, European elections in Britain are inevitably influenced by the state of domestic politics.
This is something all parties are aware of. The Liberal Democrats' attempts to lay the blame on "Labour's recession" sum this up. But Mr Spink is worried it will have a distorting effect.
"There's a great risk there will be a proxy referendum on the government's economic performance and therefore the Tories will do very well," he said.
This, he feared, may make Mr Cameron and friends "emboldened" to embrace Europe more strongly and openly.
Mr Moraes' attitude is more one of resignation to the "downward political cycle" his party faces. "That's the backdrop and no one can argue that away. We're fighting against that backdrop and now we're in the middle of a third term."
Mr Hendrick agreed that "if a voter is disgusted with the government, whichever party is in power will feel it at the ballot box".
But he offered a more upbeat assessment, saying the European elections were "not just about voicing dissatisfaction - it's about making an active choice".
There are just 72 days until polling day. The campaign ahead, set against a backdrop of deepening economic gloom and institutional malaise, will see the eurosceptics on the defensive and their opponents seeking to respond vigorously. Watch out for the skirmishing of other parties, however, and the all-pervading presence of domestic politics in the vote.
And - despite all the complications - we will learn more about whether the UK is comfortable with our links to the continent. June 4th will reveal fundamental truths about Britain's attitude to Europe. As the continent's leaders prepare drastic regulatory reforms in response to the financial crisis, the view of ordinary people will be worth keeping an eye on.