Monday, 30 June 2014

Is the European Left riding high?

Coming second in the European elections was a very bad result for the centre-left across Europe: after years of austerity and the Eurocrisis, and the PES spurring the Spitzenkadidaten process, the S&D group in the Parliament are still 30 seats behind the EPP. However the need for a Grand Coalition to propel Juncker into office has provided an opening for the left, and, like the Grand Coalition in Germany, the essential status quo stance of the biggest party gives the junior partner greater scope for pushing its agenda.

This seems to be the case when it comes to important EU posts. With Juncker as Commission President, there is a domestic German deal to support Martin Schulz as Parliament president for another 2.5 years (with the EPP taking the post for the remaining half of the parliamentary term). Two of the front runners for President of the European Council and the High Representative are Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Danish PM) and Federica Mogherini (Italian Foreign Minister) - to the extent that the EPP are protesting that the PES can't have 3 of the top EU posts. Really, the PES would be wise to go for an economic post over the High Representative position: the presidency of the European Council will be important for negotiations over how the Eurozone will be run, while the PES hasn't a very strong position on European foreign policy (if one of Italy's priorities is immigration, then the Home Affairs Commissioner might be a better position to angle for).

Given the complexity of the EU system, any agreement on policy between the Member States would be hard to stick to, so it's important for the left to win offices that are relevant to their policy goals on the economy. This will be hard to do since it depends on the nominations from the Member States, the negotiations over posts, Juncker's own plans and how the candidates fair in the European Parliament vetting process. There's already plans to revisit the Eurozone budget rules and a deal to soften deficit reduction in return for reforms, so with Italy in the Council driving seat for the rest of the year it appears that the centre-left might have a window of opportunity to push for change.

In the end, however, the lack of agreement over the policy aims of the ECB or even on some form of Transfer Union will mean that the actual scope of opportunity is very narrow indeed. And the broader problems of the centre-left are deep: the fracturing of the old electoral coalition as the economy has become less industrialised, coupled with the decline of two-party politics in most Member States, has left centre-left parties in a difficult position. Uncertain about their domestic support and (to date) largely ineffectual in generating a public debate over a more socially minded Eurozone with greater fiscal firepower, any success over the next few month is in danger of being momentary.

The left in Europe still has a tough task to rebuild itself and shouldn't be seduced into believing that they're in a good position. Europe's centre-right may be more open to some centre-left ideas than you might think at first glance, and they could be well placed to continue capturing centrist and some soft centre-left votes. The centre-left needs to rediscover its voice and identity combined with a platform of reform if it wants to return a a vote - and power - winning force.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Centenary of the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

Today marks 100 years since Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in the streets of Sarajevo. The assassination sparked a chain of events leading to the start of the First World War a month later. Austria-Hungary was set on a war with Serbia (both in response to the assassination and to shore up its security position in the Balkans), while Russia backed Serbia out of a mix of pan-Slavism and the aim of excluding Austria-Hungary from the Balkans as a sphere of influence -and through their respective alliances it became a World War.

The historical legacy of the assassination in Sarajevo itself is mixed (the BBC will broadcast a discussion of its impact on the region and nationalism later), with the different identities in Bosnia-Herzegovina divided over how history should be taught. In many ways Bosnia-Herzegovina today shows the challenges of divisive nationalism - both in the destructive effects nationalism can have in tearing apart previously peaceful communities, and in the challenging work of building a common future where people can feel comfortable in their own identities while being part of a shared space with other nationalities.

Two years ago I was in Vienna and saw the car Franz Ferdinand and his wife were in when they were shot. It was strange being so close to such a piece of history (the museum was deserted too, so it was eerily quiet), and nearby there was a poster of the declaration of war that was distributed to announce and explain the war. Both the personal tragedy of the victims of the shooting and the global tragedy of the terror of war sat close together.

The break up of Yugoslavia and the current Ukrainian crisis demonstrate that we still have a lot to learn and work on when it comes to peace, and that there are still dangers when it comes to clashing spheres of influence and nationalisms stoked in times of fear and uncertainty. A century on from the assassinations and the outbreak of war, the events are still striking in their relevance and need to be remembered.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The European Council votes: Cameron's Last Stand

The European Council will vote today on the nominee for Commission President. One month of political wrangling on from the elections, it's now certain that Jean-Claude Junker, EPP candidate, will get the nomination because of his majority in the European Parliament. Despite this, Cameron wants an official vote in the European Council rather than concede to consensus in return for some concessions.

What does Cameron get out of this? It may be a principled stand, and it also plays well to the domestic audience to not be seen giving any concessions or backing down (particularly with his backbenchers in the UK Parliament) - indeed Cameron has made this such a personal crusade that it's practically impossible for him to back down now. However, it's not likely to help Cameron's position on Europe for long: just as the 2011 veto failed to change anything and did little to help boost the Conservatives against UKIP, and being outvoted around the Council table is unlikely to inspire confidence in the plan for renegotiation.

The sight of the Swedish and Dutch governments ditching the anti-Juncker alliance also undermines the idea of some type of Northern European Alliance that the UK can be a part of, and even if it did stick together, whether it would be strong enough to push successfully for change. That's not to say that the UK couldn't build such an alliance, or that those countries don't really support (some) of the UK's aims, but the way the UK conducts its diplomacy means that the current "alliance" is really only skin-deep. At the moment Britain seems to identify countries that have a few of the same grumbles and tries to band together just on that issue - but since the EU is basically a series of endless negotiations, in an alliance you need to have strong links over several issues (otherwise allies are less likely to stick their necks out for each other). Without greater coherence and a longer-term attention, the UK becomes less useful to its allies, leading to a weaker alliance. Cameron's blundering anti-Juncker campaign has probably soured some relations and made it more difficult to get allies.

The vote might have another legacy by cracking the history of decisions by consensus. How will this filter into the decisions over other posts? In the short term we'll see a return to consensus as governments fear being isolated by a damaging vote, but the threat of a vote will increasingly hang over the Council table, where even a big country can be outvoted. There may not be more voting, but the European Council may become more majoritarian in character.

After Juncker is nominated and elected Commission President, it will be interesting to see how he will react to Britain's goals (and what job the UK's Commissioner will get!). Cameron has definitely burned all bridges there, but Juncker will still have to react to the increased Euroskeptic representation in the Parliament and the persistent left-wing discontent on the Eurozone. Getting into office is probably the easy part.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

State of the political groups

The various national political parties in the European Parliament have had until today to form political groups: by allying with parties from at least 7 other Member States with a minimum of 25 MEPs between them, they are entitled to EU funding and are in a better position to get good seats on parliamentary committees. For the mainstream groups of the Socialists and Democrats, the European People's Party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats and the European Greens-European Free Alliance, there has been little change, with most of the movement on the right of the political spectrum.

Current group positions:

EPP: 221
S&D: 191
ECR: 68
ALDE: 67
UEL: 52
Greens: 50
EFD: 48
Non-Attached: 43
[The EP still lists 11 as "others", so they might join a political group yet and possibly change the rankings again].

The Europe of Freedom and Democracy has managed to reform. The grouping that Nigel Farage led in the last Parliament looked like it might be squeezed between the European Conservatives and Reformists and the new far-right alliance of Le Pen and Geert Wilders, but in the end enough MEPs from different countries were found. The biggest gain for the EFD was the membership of the Five Star Movement, which had been considering joining the Greens. The EFD has grown from 32 to 48 MEPs despite the change in membership (the Danish People's Party has left for the ECR) and the reduction in total EP seats, and it remains the smallest group.

The European Conservatives and Reformists have been the biggest winners from this group reshuffle. From being the fifth group in size, behind the Greens, in the last Parliament, the ECR is set to edge out the Liberals as the third biggest group (growing from 54 to 68 MEPs). This should be a big boost to its political weight in the EP, but it's unlikely that it will win the EP Presidency given the likely EPP-PES deal to take turns over the post. The ECR attracted the Eurozone-skeptic AfD and the Danish People's Party, along with a smattering of other individual MEPs. It's possible that this intake could shift the ECR in a more national-conservative direction, so while the group may be founded on a free market platform, this could start to take a back seat to concerns over free movement of people and cultural issues. This might depend on how far the AfD takes a socially conservative direction and whether it can retain a free market outlook. It will be interesting to see if the ECR will "detoxify" the Danish People's Party, or if they will toxify the ECR...

The United European Left grouping has also boosted its numbers from 35 to 52, with the Spanish party Podemos. EUObserver reports that the group is split between those that are anti-EU and those who favour more integration to solve economic and social issues (it seems that Podemos leans towards federalism). Meanwhile the Le Pen-Wilders project for a far-right alliance has failed to bring together enough MEPs from across the EU to form a political group. For now the Front National and the PVV will sit as Non-Attached.

For the EPP and S&D, little has changed. The German delegation is the largest now in the EPP and the S&D's biggest delegation will be Italian, but apart from that there doesn't seem to be any major changes. Likewise ALDE and the Greens have not had any major additions or losses in the re-shuffle - which could be seen as both groups having settled identities (any liberal/Green party that could join probably is already aligned with them).

Over this splintered Parliament it looks like Martin Schulz will re-take the President's chair as part of the coalition between the EPP and S&D. It remains to be seen if the Grand Coalition will stick together on the big issues or if it will only stay in place as a deal over the top posts.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Assessing some of the arguments against the Spitzenkandidaten

While Cameron's campaign against Juncker may be a blunder (though some national leaders may just enjoy messing about in boats), what about the arguments being made against the European Parliament essentially deciding who will be the next Commission President? This may be an institutional power struggle, but it's one being played out in the media for all the public to see (to an extent - none of us has been a fly on the, er, boat of the politiking of some of the national leaders), and the public perception matters. It was the German press that forced Merkel to publicly back Juncker, and now Cameron has written an article for publication in several Member States denouncing the process as a power-grab by the European Parliament.

So let's take a look at the arguments against the Spitzenkandidaten.

Nobody knows who he is!

Who's ever heard of Juncker? Sure, there were some head-to-head debates between Juncker and Schulz on German TV, and there was a pan-European debate between the five candidates, but very few people paid attention to that. (The European Council, by contrast, would never pick someone the public had never heard of). This attacks the democratic legitimacy of the choice. The presidential campaign didn't go as well as its supporters wanted, but it should be noted that the lack of media coverage of the candidates was the most severe in the UK (Juncker didn't campaign there like he did in other countries, and Schulz only visited Northern Ireland because the SDLP, rather than the Labour Party, is the PES party for the area).

The support for Juncker in the German media is because of the debate they had before the elections, so Juncker is seen as the legitimate winner of the elections. Likewise the "nobody knows who he is!" argument is strongest in the British media. While this argument does matter, the problem is that it cuts both ways: how will it play in Germany if the Council picked a nobody rather than Juncker, and how will it play in the UK if Juncker is picked?

The European Parliament doesn't have the right to pick the President, only the European Council does!

The European Council nominates the next Commission President, who is then put to a vote by the European Parliament, which elects the president (later on the Parliament also votes on the Commission as a whole). This argument focuses on the legal position and powers of the institutions, though it can be read both ways - yes, the European Council makes the nomination taking into account the election results (which aren't binding), but the Parliament also "elects" the Commission and Commission President. Those making the argument that the European Council should be free to ignore the election results (or at least the Spitzenkandidaten) argue that the Parliament is making a power-grab here.

Well, the Parliament is making a power-grab. But it's not an illegal one. Through its power of election (and it's power to remove a sitting Commission), the European Parliament has an effective veto over the Commission. The European Council is, of course, free to nominate someone else, but the question being fought over right now is how much it can under the current system. The point is that the Parliament can reject any nominee that the European Council proposes, and this, along with the commitment of the big Europarties to rejecting non-Spitzenkandidaten, that is forcing the Council to deal with this issue in the first place.

There are two legal rules here, but it's the political coalitions that can be built across the Parliament and Council that will decide the issue in the end.

This would make the Commission political! The Commission should be the neutral "civil service" of the EU.

It's hard to see how you can argue that the Commission is politically neutral when the Member States have been sending politicians as Commissioners since the institution began. Jacques Delors was hardly a politically neutral figure. As the Commission has a near-monopoly on the right to propose new laws (some laws can be proposed in the Council), it can't help but be political. While the European Council sets the general direction of the EU, the Commission consults on and draws up the proposals, which have to be put to a vote of the Commissioners before they're proposed. And presumably those who oppose Juncker on the basis that he doesn't fit their political agenda think that the institution is political enough that it warrants a campaign.

The introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten will make the Commission more political, in that the Parliament - or at least the Europarties in the coalition - is likely to want to see a kind of "coalition programme", at least on the priorities of the Commission. I think we'll see something like this from the Grand Coalition in the Parliament, but I doubt it will be very detailed or will end up replacing the Council's script. The Council is still a very powerful co-legislator, and the Commission and Parliament will have to agree on them for any law to be passed.

This would make the Commission too dependent on the Parliament and destroy the institutional balance of the EU.

The Commission, Parliament and Council work together as a kind of institutional triangle: they have to work together to pass any EU laws. An argument against the Parliament having such influence over the choice for Commission President is that the Commission will become overly dependent on the Parliament for its political support and direction. As I mentioned above, the Council's support is needed in any case to pass laws, so I don't think this will have too much of an impact institutionally, but it could have the effect of making the EU a bit more majoritarian.

If there is a coalition programme, for example, the Commission might be motivated to propose a law based on the fact that has a majority in the Parliament. The Council could reject this, of course, but the public nature of the proposal makes the situation more complicated, since Member States might have to think more about their position on the proposal. Consultations with the Parliament and the Council before draft laws are proposed so I can't see anything radical being proposed - but proposals might be increasingly pitched on the understanding that there's a qualified majority in the Council rather than letting some ideas die off or never even be considered due to the opposition of one or two Member States.

An interesting argument could be had here on whether this would make national governments feel less in control of, and less likely to support, the EU while not generating enough democratic legitimacy for the Union to sustain itself without the full support of the elite of the 28 member governments. It's not really something that can be answered before it's been tried, but those supporting the move towards Spitzenkandidaten should be mindful that it's not a strategy without risk.

On the other hand, sticking with the current Council-dominated approach, which tends to favour bigger countries over the small ones, isn't without risk either. The economic crisis has largely been dealt with by the European Council through summits where clearly not all Member States are equal (you only need to think of Germany's dominance in the Eurocrisis). If bringing the Commission into line with the European elections makes the Commission more independent of the Member States and more able to treat them equally, this could be a reason to support the process.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A very Cameronian blunder

Since the election the backing for Juncker as the European Commission President has stiffened, from Angela Merkel to even European Left candidate Tsipras saying that Juncker deserves to get the job if he can get a parliamentary backing, because that's the democratic, parliamentary process. Set against this, Cameron's campaign against a Juncker presidency looks more and more misguided by the day. While the Netherlands, Sweden and Hungary are against Juncker, by leading such a prominent campaign against him, Cameron has probably made it more likely that Juncker will get the presidency.

Cameron tends to have a very short-term, tactical approach to politics, particularly when it comes to the EU. The big speech that was supposed to outflank UKIP clearly didn't - in fact, the more the Conservative party echoes UKIP, the better UKIP seems to do. Promising a renegotiation and an in/out referendum on the basis of the result hasn't done much to quiet his party on the matter either (with people now wondering if the referendum date of 2017 will be brought forward to 2016). When wielding the veto in December 2011, Cameron was able to strike the pose of a decisive leader with good Euroskeptic credentials, but the ability of the other countries to go on without the UK ended up showing how devalued a veto can be. (If the UK had taken part in the negotiations while holding on to the veto, it would have been able to shape the agreement and it's potential veto would have carried more weight towards the end of the process). This short-termist thinking is often traced back to Cameron promising to take the Conservatives out of the EPP as part of his platform for the party leadership.

Opposing Juncker's candidacy was always going to be risky. While the campaign might not have been as high profile as some would have wanted, it's difficult to name alternatives from outside the Europarty candidates - Lagarde has ruled herself out, and many of the others are serving Prime Ministers and Presidents. Pascal Lamy, director-general of WTO and formerly the chef de cabinet of Jacques Delors, is hardly a fresher name than Juncker when it comes to EU politics. More importantly, the European Parliament is set on getting one of its candidates in the job, and they can veto any nomination by the European Council. It's difficult to see any of these speculative alternatives giving up their jobs (or present themselves as willing to give up their premierships/presidencies to their national electorates), to place themselves in the middle of a power struggle between the Parliament and the Council.

And while the UK has some allies on its side, it's going to be very difficult to form a blocking minority in the European Council. Cameron's view on EU politics seems strikingly simplistic - focused on winning over Merkel and co-opting Germany's political weight in Europe. It's hardly a secret that Merkel is lukewarm on a Juncker presidency, but the German media rallied behind Juncker when it was suggested that the UK may be threatening leaving the EU. That the CDU's coalition partners in Berlin, the Social Democrats, were so closely wedded to the presidential campaign meant that the pressure on Merkel to publicly back Juncker was strong within the government too. Rather than working to quietly sideline Juncker behind the scenes, Cameron has made it much harder to get rid of him by forcing public declarations of support or opposition.

All this raises the question: if it's this difficult to block Juncker, how much influence would the UK have in shaping the alternative? A nomination still requires a majority. Even if Italy joins the UK in blocking Juncker (a big if, in my opinion, as Italy will soon have the presidency of the Council for the second half of 2014 and will probably want good relations with the Parliament if it wants to push legislation through), will the blocking minority form a coherent enough bloc vote to be able to shift the rest of the Member States (and for the UK to have a decisive role in that)?

Cameron would probably have done better by quickly getting the European Council to adopt priorities that are closer to his position using the election results as political support. The European Council still sets the overall policy direction of the Union (and Merkel has tried to steer the debate in this direction as a way of finding consensus). But now a Juncker presidency will have been badly burned by the right-wing, British-led, opposition to him, and he will be aware that his political base in the Parliament rests on a coalition with left-wing parties who were needed in order to overcome ECR opposition and any EPP rebellions. The institutional balance and Juncker's own affinity for fellow national leaders will mean that his presidency will focus more on consensus rather than confrontation, but it will be far from a natural ally of the current UK government.