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Europe’s New Political Battle Lines

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras recently declared that a united front of “all progressive, democratic, and pro-European forces have a duty to stand side by side on the same side of history.” But will that be enough to offset gains by nationalist populists in the May 2019 European Parliament election?

PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron has framed the European Parliament election in May 2019 as a battle not between the traditional right and left, but between populists and pro-European progressives like himself. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras recently adopted similar rhetoric, declaring that “all progressive, democratic, and pro-European forces have a duty to stand side by side on the same side of history.” Would such a fundamental Europe-wide political shift – much like the one in France that brought Macron to power last year – actually come to pass?

The European People’s Party (EPP) on the right and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) on the left have long shared control of the European Parliament, where they have governed by compromise. But, over time, this has produced a kind of political homogenization in Europe, leading to mass abstentionism. Those who do vote increasingly choose anti-establishment parties that often espouse extreme views.

As a result, whereas the EPP and S&D controlled 61% of the European Parliament in 2009, they won only 54% of the vote in 2014, meaning that the body was very nearly dominated by extremist parties. The 2019 election is likely to produce even more losses for the establishment parties, which are expected to win only 45% of seats.

At this stage, it is doubtful that anyone would consider running a campaign on the basis of left-right divisions – not least because of deep rifts within the parties themselves. On the right, the EPP is divided between pro-European liberals and conservative Euroskeptics, despite endorsing Manfred Weber of Germany’s Christian Social Union as the EPP Spitzenkandidat.

At the recent EPP Congress in Helsinki, European Council President Donald Tusk was explicit: breaching the rule of law is incompatible with belonging to the Christian Democrat family – a message obviously aimed at Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. In the European Parliament, the EPP even voted in favor of invoking Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon against Hungary, a move that would impose sanctions in response to the Orbán government’s systematic violations of judicial independence, freedom of speech, and the rights of minorities and migrants.

But the EPP’s vote was largely motivated by its desire to preserve its chances of remaining the largest EU party and ensuring that Weber becomes the next European Commission leader. More broadly, strong political pressure forced the EPP’s hand; under different circumstances, the party probably would have been happy to allow Orbán to continue breaching democratic norms unchecked, in order to preserve its own hegemony in the EU Parliament.

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But in refusing to clarify its position on Orbán or expel him, the EPP is taking an enormous risk. If the European Council chooses Weber as the next European Commission president, both social democrats and liberals in the European Parliament could refuse to vote for a candidate from a party that keeps Orbán in its ranks. That is why Macron, who has an interest in dividing the EPP and luring its liberal wing to join him, opposes the Spitzenkandidat system.

There are three alternatives. First, the European Council could choose an EPP candidate who is less ambiguous on Hungary. Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier could be a serious substitute for Weber – probably the only one within the EPP.

The second alternative would be to endorse the Dutch Labour Party’s Frans Timmermans, who took a very strong position against Orbán and is acceptable to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EPP liberals. To be sure, Merkel might prefer Weber. But if the European Council is deadlocked, and the European Parliament opposes her choice, she could endorse another candidate. The decline of the S&D also makes it implausible that Weber could get their support.

The third option could be a candidate endorsed by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), such as Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner. Some observers argue that the Danish government will never propose Vestager as their candidate. But Macron, who strongly supports Vestager, could endorse her as the French candidate – an unprecedented move that would accelerate the Europeanization of continental politics.

Overall, populist forces could well secure a majority in the European Parliament, though they will not operate as a unified force under a single political banner. In such a scenario, Macron would need to build political coalitions with either the EPP or the S&D, whose views largely align with his vision for EU – and, more important, eurozone – reform. In fact, like the rule of law, eurozone reform is a key fault line along which political alliances will be established.

Macron is already marshaling support among center-right leaders in Spain and the Netherlands, who are more sympathetic to his vision for European integration. He has established a good rapport with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, even though Rutte opposes the eurozone reforms Macron advocates.

Two other issues will likely shape the outcome of the European Parliament election. First, Europe’s leaders will have to address the need to reinforce the EU’s external frontiers, especially through the long-overdue deployment of a European border patrol. Such a proposal will undoubtedly rile nationalist populists, who will oppose the deployment of a European force, even as they rail against migration.

Second, Europe’s leaders will need to commit to combating tax evasion and avoidance by major companies, especially the big tech firms. This is a high-stakes issue, as it will determine the capacity of states to remain fiscally solvent in increasingly digital economies.

Some progress has already been made on this front, thanks largely to Vestager. But stronger action is needed, not least because EU countries continue to grant corporate tax abatements. And with Germany reconsidering its support for a French-backed plan to tax the revenue of large technology companies at the EU level, further progress is far from guaranteed.

Perhaps Europe’s ongoing political realignment will enable the realization of Macron’s vision of a stronger, more integrated Europe. While recent challenges – not least Italy’s budget battle with the European Commission – indicate that such an outcome is far from assured, it remains the most credible counterweight to the rise of populism.

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