It’s Not the Choice of MEPs but of Commission that Counts
In ten weeks next summer Europe’s new leadership will be chosen. It is the most important moment in Europe’s history since the Treaty of Rome. The current leadership in Europe is by most reckoning a problem, not yet a solution. It is deeply conservative and such centre-left parties as win power alone or in coalition are unable to offer an alternative.
National leaders like Mrs Merkel have insisted on orthodox austerity economics for Europe reminiscent of the reparations era economics of the 1920s. France is out of the leadership of Europe until President Hollande can find some way of restoring economic energy or perhaps in agreeing to a major sharing of national sovereignty. David Cameron has put Britain on the sidelines until his In-Out referendum in 2017, which many believe will lead to Britain quitting Europe.
The European Commission under the 2-term José Manuel Barroso is seen as the weakest since the Treaty of Rome. The President of the Council, an innovation under the Lisbon Treaty, has made little difference. The European Parliament now persuades just two in five European citizens to vote in its election.
So next summer, all the elected and selected leadership posts in Europe come up for grabs. 766 members of the European Parliament have to be elected. The Presidents of the Commission, the Council, the Parliament, the Eurogroup and the EU Foreign Minister have to be chosen.
France’s president Hollande last week told the Nouvel Observateur that ‘Next May, the European Parliament could be for the large part composed of anti-Europeans. It would be regression and a threat of paralysis.’ In part Hollande is trying to stir his socialist party into action. The latest opinion polls show Marine Le Pen’s extreme right Front national with 24 per cent of the votes in the European Parliament elections. But in Britain, the latest European Parliament election polls gives Labour 35 per cent against 22 per for UKIP, with the ruling Conservatives, like the ruling Socialists in France, coming third.
That is embarrassing but will not dent the overall dominance of the European Parliament by mainstream democratic and broadly pro-European parties.
In fact, in Greece it may well by the leftist Syriza that does well in the European Parliament election just as the eclectic, erratic leftists of Beppe Grillo’s Cinque Estrella movement may get the protest votes against the left-right coalition in power in Rome In Poland, PiS, the Law and Justice party headed by Lech Kacynzksi will do well as Polish voters tire of the Civic Platform government. PiS on the right and Syriza on the left are not classic EU system parties but neither uses the Europhobic language of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. In turn, the FN in France with its roots in anti-semitism and racism and the anti-Europe UKIP in England are not the same and do not cooperate.
Germany’s anti-Euro party, Alternative für Deutschland, will win a seat or two. But Hollande is wrong to see all these anti-system parties as a coherent, unified block that can threaten paralysis. Hungary’s increasingly nationalist Fidesz party faces criticisms similar to those made against Jorg Haider and his Austrian Freedom Party in 2000. But Fidesz sits in the European People’s Party in contrast to Britain’s Conservatives who quit the EPP and formed a group with PiS and others in the European Parliament .
So the anti-EU parties like split. Some are openly anti-Jewish like Hungary’s Jobbik and some openly anti-Muslim like the Dutch PVV. But they form at best about 10 per cent of 766 MEPs. The biggest federalist voice in Strasbourg is Daniel Cohn-Bendit who leads a group of 58 Green MEPs who if added to the 274 centre-right MEPs, 195 centre-left MEPs and 85 Liberal MEPs form a more than comfortable block for a broad pro-EU majority in the European Parliament.
The Socialists in France may lose some seats but Labour in Britain will win some as should the Socialists in Spain so the overall balance will be maintained.
The real challenge will not be to secure a European Parliament free of anti-Europeans but to choose a set of executives that can lead Europe out of its current morose state. This is Hollande’s real opportunity and Merkel’s real challenge. To devote serious thought and invest serious time in discussing with fellow EU leaders how to find a quartet of presidents – Commission, Council, Eurogroup and Parliament – as well as the Foreign Affairs representative to lead Europe out of its current state of economic misery giving rise to extremist scape-goating politics particularly against foreign faces.
The European Parliament election will see a low turn-out and not much real change in its composition. The real task is to create a leadership team that can transform the European Union before it’s too late.