A * assumption has been that the combination of the cold economic climate, harsh austerity measures and general disillusionment with politicians boosts the electoral chances of the populist right. The French presidential race, where Marine Le Pen offers a soft-ish version of the far-right National Front, will be one of the first tests of this hypothesis.
It is possible, though, to conceive of quite a different scenario that would change the political face of today's Europe almost as much. Instead of handing more power to the far right, Europe could turn decisively to the left. France, where the first round of the presidential election takes place on 22 April, will test of this hypothesis, too.
At one level, what happened in Spain late last year might seem to disprove this. The explanation for the sweeping victory of the centre-right Popular Party here, however, is probably that, in the present economic climate, no sitting government is safe. And it just so happens that many of those facing elections in the coming 18 months are governments of the centre-right.
They include that of France, where opinion polls show President Nicolas Sarkozy slipping behind his Socialist rival, François Hollande. Three months before the vote, there seems a real prospect of France electing a president of the left.
Of course, these are early days and Sarkozy, right, is a formidable campaigner. But let us suppose that it is François Hollande's face that French viewers see forming on their TV screens on election night. Let us further suppose that the same factors that brought him to power produce a left-leaning National Assembly a few weeks later. Let us then posit that elections in Italy also bring a left-leaning government.
And finally consider that by 2013, German voters are bored with two terms of Chancellor Merkel and frustrated with the ineptitude of her second coalition. If they then decide to give the Social Democrats another chance, the political face of Europe suddenly looks very different.
One view might be that, while the colours on the electoral map and the nameplates would have changed, the room for real policy change would be negligible. But this is not necessarily what would happen. It is striking that François Hollande's campaign speeches have a harder, more traditionally left-wing edge than many European Socialists have allowed themselves in recent years.
If not just one but several major EU countries turned to the left, one consequence might be a new, much more aggressive approach to regulation, especially of the financial sector. Another might be a more redistributive approach to national taxation and closer coordination across the eurozone. A third might be the burial of the 1990s preoccupation with competitiveness and greater attention to living standards. A fourth might be the consolidation of a two-speed Europe, with moves towards political and fiscal union at the core – and a fifth might be progress towards an EU army – primarily for economic reasons.
A possible sixth consequence might be felt in Britain, where an EU shift to the left could give Labour not only new faith in the feasibility of presenting an alternative to the Coalition's centre ground, but new ideas about how to seize that ground for itself. Today, such a time looks very far off. But the election of a Socialist president in France could bring it – and a different sort of EU – closer.