EU leaders play down election upset

SUMMARY: By Cillian Donnelly 

Within EU circles there is talk of reform. The European Union has become a rampant bureaucracy, too large, too distant. It has become, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, “too big, too bossy, too interfering.”Image

(#EU flags in front of the #EuropeanParliament building in Strasbourg (c) European Parliament )

France’s socialist president, François Hollande also echoed the sentiments of the conservative PM. Europe needs to change, especially with regard to immigration. The beleaguered president saw his party slump to a historic low in the European Parliament elections held at the weekend; he was beaten into third place in a poll that saw the far-right Front National, protectionist, anti-EU and anti-immigration, come out on top.

This all comes in the wake of elections that saw a dramatic rise in support for Eurosceptic and populist parties across the EU. Meeting in Brussels on 27 May, an informal gathering of EU leaders discussed the fallout from what the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, called a political earthquake; one that was felt to greater or lesser degrees in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Faced with political upheaval, the established order paid lip-service to the results, or, at least, to the perception of what it means for Europe over the next five years. The conclusion was that voters want some kind of change.

Over the next few weeks, the EU institutions will convene to do what they do best; appoint top jobs, decisions reached by the established practice of convoluted back-room deals, and seek to consolidate the centre against the extremes.

The first part includes the appointing of the European Commission and Council presidents, as well as the EU’s foreign affairs chief. Traditionally these come from the ranks of the largest European political groups, the centre-right EPP and the centre-left S&D. This time around, the parliament, in an attempt to muscle-in on proceedings, as interpreted a passage in the Lisbon Treaty that sates the appointment of the commission president must “take into account” the elections results. Having come out on top, the EPP feels their man, former Luxembourg prime minister and Eurogroup head, Jean-Claude Juncker, should get the job. Support, however, has not been forthcoming; he will certainly be voted down by David Cameron, and has also come under fire from the EPP-affiliated leaders of Hungary and Sweden.  Mark Rutte, the liberal leader of the Netherlands isn’t too keen, either.

The heads of state will convene again at the end of June to try and progress the issue, along with a decision on what the political priorities for the next five years. This is where the parliament comes in. Despite having seen a dramatic rise votes for those outside the political mainstream, the tow biggest faction remain the EPP and S&D, ahead of the Liberals and  the Greens. The hard left is represented by the GUE group, given a boost by successes in Greece, Spain, and, to a lesser extent, Ireland.

For the first time, there will be three groups to the right of the EPP; the ECR, which houses David Cameron’s Conservative Party; the EFD, home to Nigel Farage’s Ukip that topped the poll in the UK; and a new group to be spearheaded by Marine Le Pen, the European Alliance for Freedom, which will include far-right parties from the Netherlands, Austria, and others, including, possibly, the Swedish Democrats. In order for a group to be formed there must be a minimum of 25 members representing at least seven member states. With over one hundred new members elected to this legislature, there will be a scramble to hoover-up anyone that can boost a group’s numbers, nationalities, and, ultimately, stability. Securing a group is crucial for access to funding, as well as top jobs on political committees.

The new parliament meets for the first time on 2 June, and will spend the next few weeks formalising its groups and deciding committee membership, including chairmanships. Under the new make-up of the parliament, these appointments will be crucial.

Big issues for the next legislature include climate change and a common energy policy, data protection and continued reform of the financial sector. The staffing of the industry and environment committees, the civil rights committee and the economic committee will therefore be of great importance. The new commissioners who hold those portfolios will also be key to the success of the new political term; as will the person who grasps the traditional poisoned chalice of the budget portfolio, and the digital agenda brief (which, sadly, looks like not being another Dutch candidate).

International trade is also a crucial area, and may test the parliament’s coalition-building skills. The adoption of the transatlantic trade agreement (TTIP) is a cornerstone of Eu policy, in that its success or failure will define the EU as an international force. The deal, for differing reasons,  is being pilloried by left and right; both of which have seen an increase in numbers following the election. There has been initial talk of coalition-building, a concerted effort by the mainstream pro-European parties to shut out and isolate those considered to be on the extremes.

While this is true, the biggest party on the right, the EPP, can steer legislation through parliament if backed-up by the socialists and liberals. It does not have an overall right-wing majority – and wouldn’t want it anyway, as that would mean deal-making with the anti-EU squad – so it may be forced to compromise with its centre-left counterparts, in an EU version of the kind of grand coalitions that have come to be de rigueur in EU politics right now. Of course, if the EPP is petrified by its attackers on the right, a left-wing coalition of the Socialists, Greens, GUE and, on certain issues, the Liberals, could prove to be a major headache. Especially on environmental and civil liberties issues.

The conventional wisdom right now is that the main groups will grandly club together to push down those on the extremes; but, of course, nuances in policy persist. For all their apparent strength right now, the largest party in parliament is looking somewhat weakened.

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