The Forming of the New European Parliament: A Brief Analysis

EDW
June 6, 2014

For the eighth time in the history of the EU, citizens went to the polls to choose their representatives in the European Parliament (EP). The newly elected Parliament will influence – within the boundaries of its increased but still limited powers – Europe’s next five years. This comes precisely at a time in which Europe has been facing an economic crisis, rising nationalism, the loss of trust in institutions and an ideological degradation of culture. Driven by a Europe-wide feeling of frustration, the elections have sounded a serious wake-up call for politicians to have an honest debate about the shape of the current EU.

These were the first EP elections since the first direct elections of 1979 that did not see an overall drop in turnout. In fact, the slogan of the elections – “this time it’s different” – was an apt description of the massive anti-establishment vote seen across Europe. Only among the younger Member States of Central and Eastern Europe did voters seem to have manifested their discontent with the EU with exceedingly low levels of participation: a mere 13% in Slovakia and 19% in the Czech Republic, for example.

In the mostly southern European countries most hit by the economic crisis and forced into bail-out programs – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – there was a rejection of mainstream, centrist, consensus-based parties and a swing to new, more radical, far-left parties which reject austerity outright. In northwest Europe, a region which has been relatively unaffected by the economic crisis, other countries – notably the UK, France, the Netherlands and Denmark – saw a turn to Euro-sceptic and far-right parties.

Similar trends were observed in wealthy northern European countries such as Germany, Finland and Sweden, which have seen the emergence of generally pro-European but anti-Euro parties. Such parties have been to the right of the traditional Christian Democratic parties. More importantly, they have been distrustful of the long-term success of the bail-out of the poorer Southern countries, worrying about the huge and irresponsible amount of debt being put on the shoulders of the average citizen, his children and grandchildren.

In short, the results of the EP elections have been celebrated by many as the end of a ‘fake’ democracy; others, meanwhile, fear that it is a symbol of European disunity, and the loss of common goals and identity. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle.  It is clear that Europe has changed. Any such change deserves rigorous analysis.

What has happened?

Reactions to the recent elections range from calling it a “political earthquake” to “the beginning of the decomposition of the EU”.  But what is really to be expected from the new European legislature? And how will the political debate change?

There are, indeed, many new, unexpected political players in the field. And although many small parties have gained power, on paper the political majorities have not changed much: The European People’s Party (EPP) remains the biggest political group, followed by the Socialists.

Yet the major political forces that used to dominate the European Parliament have been severely fragmented: Centrist parties have been displaced by the rise of those on the far-left and far-right; and in many countries the two or three major established national parties have been forced to open their doors to new political parties that have achieved a broad and stable consolidation of seats in the new Parliament. This trend has been repeated everywhere and the Euro-sceptics now have a foot firmly in the door of the European Parliament’s hemicycle: One out of every five MEPs is now Euro-sceptic.

In a strategically smart move during the elections, Euro-sceptic parties spoke to the feelings of the average citizen: They talked openly about the massive bank bail-outs, continuing high unemployment and growing political disaffection. And, in doing so, they hit a nerve: the growing frustration – and even anger – among voters about the taboo of discussing the EU’s flaws and general direction.

Thus, criticizing the EU yielded strong gains for the extreme-right Front National in France (25%), the extreme-left Syriza in Greece (26.6%) and the extreme Euro-sceptic UKIP in the UK (29.5%). Similar but less than expected results were seen in Italy with Beppe Grillo’s Cinque Stelle Movement (21.15%), Spain with Pablo Iglesias’ far-left Podemos party (7.9%), the Netherlands with Geert Wilders’ far-right Partij voor de Vrijheid or PVV (13.2%) and Austria with the strong anti-EU party FPÖ.

But what comes next?                         

The next month and a half will be decisive. For the first time ever, European political parties have presented official candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission. And on May 27, the Conference of Presidents held an informal dinner of EU Heads of State and Governments to discuss the issue.

Although the EPP achieved a majority in the polls, there have since been growing objections to Jean-Claude Juncker’s candidacy. Both Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt have openly spoken out against the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) system, which has been their way to object to Juncker as President of the Commission. Even David Cameron is openly lobbying against the Europhilic Juncker – though certainly under pressure from the smiling winner of the UK, Nigel Farage and his now strong UKIP. And it is worth noting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, until recently supportive of the Spitzenkandidaten system – and, therefore, of Juncker – has only hesitantly made statements in support of Juncker.

There are alternatives for Commission President. In bilateral discussions at the EPP pre-summit, the name of IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde was reportedly mentioned. Two other possible alternatives discussed were Finland’s Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

But behind the scenes, Martin Schulz, former President of the European Parliament, continues to pull the strings – presumably to catapult himself into the highest achievable position of power.

After acknowledging his defeat as the Spitzenkandidat, Schulz stepped down as Parliament President two days ago in order to prepare the way for the creation of a Vice Presidential post according to party quotas. With his own party (socialists) as the second strongest group in Parliament, this would give him the “right” to become Vice President of the Commission.

Until now, Vice Presidents of the Commission have been non-political positions with candidates picked from among the Commissioners; they have not been chosen according to election results. Through his blatant attempt to increase his own power by politicising a non-political post, Schulz seems to ignore established rules and procedures.

The official nomination of the candidate for Commission President should come from the European Council over the next few weeks. The July 14-17 plenary session of the new Parliament is expected to vote on the Council’s candidate.

New political groupings

With the elections now over, many newly elected MEPs are now coming together to form or join transnational political groups in Parliament based on their political affinities. The rules dictate that a political group in the EP must consist of at least 25 MEPs and have members from at least one-quarter of the EU’s Member States (currently seven). Given the election’s results, a new far-right group will probably see the light of the day. It will likely consist of the Front National (France), the Republikaner (Germany), Vlaams Belang (Belgium), PVV (Netherlands) and FPÖ (Austria). However, they will still need two more Member States, which are likely to be Svobodní (Czech Republic, 1 seat) and KNP (Poland, 4 seats). While the existing far-right Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group is struggling to survive, many of its members are not keen to join a possible new Front National-PVV-FPÖ group.

Meanwhile, the European Conservative and Reformist Group (ECR) will be represented by strong delegations from the UK (20 seats) and Poland (19 seats). In addition, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is anxiously waiting for approval to join the group.

Anything can happen in this game of power and interests. And political identity, principles and ideology are not always the only – nor even the primary – reason for the re-composition of European political groups. To the great surprise of everyone, for example, EPP President Joseph Daul recently readily accepted the membership application of the Romanian National Liberal Party (PNL), a party that is far from anything that could be called centre-right. The official political groups forming the new Parliament should be settled by late June, just in time for the first plenary session on July 1.

Family, life and freedom in the new EP

The need for a Europe that is firmly rooted in the traditional values which inspired the ‘Founding Fathers’ is now more pressing than ever in this maremagnum of political changes, new alliances and shared power.

The European People’s Party will still dominate the hemicycle with 265 seats, but they have to digest a net loss of 60 seats. Some strong pro-life and pro-family MEPs, such as Bernd Posselt or Martin Kastler of Germany, were not re-elected. In their stead come some staunch pro-LGBT and gender activists, such as Norica Nicolai and Renate Weber, both of Romania, and Agnieszka Kozłowska-Rajewicz of Poland.

Although the rise of right-wing and Euro-sceptic parties does not mean that they are pro-life and pro-family, or that they care much about the inalienable dignity and fundamental freedoms of every human being, there will certainly be new opportunities to raise such issues in the new Parliament. In this respect, some interesting newcomers to the European Parliament are the new ‘green conservative’ Partido da Terra (MPT) in Portugal; part of the liberal AfD (with Beatrix von Storch representing its socially conservative wing); and the independent Romanian MEP Mircea Diaconu, a great supporter of the family and a specialist on Europe’s demographic crisis. Other encouraging additions are Croatia’s Marijana Petir of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), who is a staunch supporter of the “One of Us” citizens’ initiative, and Slovakia’s Branislav Škripek from OĽaNO, a strong defender of family and Christian values. Poland gained with the election of Marek Jurek and the re-election of Jan Olbrycht, both committed and experienced pro-family and pro-life politicians, as MEPs. Olbrycht is likely to become the leader of the Polish EPP delegation. And Lithuania, with the Order and Justice party (2 MEPs, EFD) and the ‘Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania’ (1 MEP, ECR), now sees strong defenders of family and life in Parliament.

After the upcoming weeks of rearrangement – of coalitions, political groups and committee members – and the bargaining for power positions, once thing will be clear: It will be a very interesting legislature. And in many ways, its final composition will determine the direction the EU will take – both as a whole but also with regards to the pillars of the common good – that is, respect for human dignity, the family and the fundamental freedoms of citizens.