Never mind Brexit Britain – next year will be a defining one for the EU. Former Europe minister DENIS MacSHANE looks ahead to a momentous 2019
Once upon a time, Britain used to be a major power in Brussels, exerting great influence over how the EU would develop. Those days have gone, though, and the UK will now have to watch as other countries carry on making the big decisions. 2019 will be a big year in this respect, with May’s European parliamentary elections setting the direction of travel for the decade ahead.
Despite Steve Bannon’s bombast, the vote will not see the parliament taken over by the ultra-right. Before the 2015 UK election, professor Matthew Goodwin, an English academic who writes on hard-right politics, predicted that four or five UKIP candidates would win seats in the House of Commons. In fact, just one was elected and two years later the party obtained only 1.8% of the vote. Goodwin now insists that ‘national populism looks set to remain as a permanent fixture on the landscape’. But when wasn’t it? The most successful national populists since 1945 have been the French and Italian communist parties who obtained up to 30% of votes in elections on the basis of anti-elitist, protectionist appeals, similar to today’s populists. Indeed, the French communist leader, Georges Marchais, as late as 1980, was ranting on television that France should shut its borders to European workers, just as anti-EU politicians do in Britain today.
Indeed, Europe’s illiberal populists have little in common with one another other than tabloid denunciations of Brussels. Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini are big fans of Vladimir Putin, while Poland’s Jaros?aw Kaczysnki despises him. Salvini wants northern Europe to take in more refugees, but he is getting short shrift in this area from Austria’s coalition of rightists and far-rightists.
What we will see, though, is an increase in the number of small parties from across the political spectrum, bringing a commensurate decline in the influence of the big three groupings: the centre-right European People’s Party, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the liberal-centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
Klaus Welle, the German secretary general of the parliament, thinks the era when the big three groups controlled the chairmanship of committees, carved up the presidency and decided policy, will end and that parliament will become increasingly unmanageable. From France alone, there may be as many as 15 parties seeking to win MEP seats next May.
Alongside the well-publicised rise of the right, new political formations based on ecological and civil society politics have emerged. Poland, for instance, has several mayors opposed to Kaczynski. And while British newspapers got excited about the rise of the right-wing Swedish Democrats in the country’s recent elections, they didn’t seem to notice the increase in support for the left-wing Vänsterpartiet. There are 100 green and left-wing MEPs, and more than 20 not aligned to any group.
The man hoping to reshape the parliamentary picture in his own image – as he has done in his own country – is the French president Emmanuel Macron. He needs 25 MEPs from at least seven countries to form a new political group. This is achievable. According to his European secretary, Garance Pineau, Macron thinks the European parliament needs a shake-up. Too many MEPs are shop-worn ex-ministers or regional party hacks put on a list to get a salary and expenses. This suits Macron, who is sending out his party officials across Europe to try and find future MEPs who will join his group.
Macron is also a key player in the choice of the next president of the European Commission. I represented the Labour Party on the executive of the Party of European Socialists in 2009 when the first stirrings of the so-called Spitzenkandidat process – to chose a European Commission president – arose. The idea was that each party group would name a Spitzenkandidat – or lead candidate – to head the list for the European parliament elections. Whoever got the most MEPs would get the Commission presidency. At the time I was shocked that these cabals of MEPs could casually announce their new system without any consultation with national political parties.
The idea was to abolish the so-called democratic deficit by making the most powerful EU official – the Commission president – subject to some kind of electoral mandate. But the first Spitzenkandidat president to emerge was Jean-Claude Juncker. As a long-time finance and then prime minister in Luxembourg and a consummate Brussels insider, he hardly represented the authentic democratic choice of the people, or any kind of new voice or new politics.
In fact, the level of participation in European elections has decreased at each vote since the first direct elections in 1979. The hopes that a European demos would emerge, with the European parliament growing in presence and profile to become the Congress/National Assembly/Houses of Parliament for 500 million EU citizens has not happened.
So far, the names in the running for 2019’s Spitzenkandidats have been less than stellar. Angela Merkel has proposed Manfred Weber, from the CSU Bavarian party linked to her own CDU. Weber is an experienced MEP and leads the EPP group. But he has no national political experience and has not held any regional or national ministerial post. He has tried to win support by reversing his policy of providing cover for Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who many EPP conservatives consider should be in one of the nationalist parliamentary groups.
Finland’s former prime minister, Alexander Stubb, is also seeking the EPP nomination. But his association with hardline austerity economics may not win much support in southern Europe, where mass youth employment has soared.
Maroš Šefcovic, a low-profile Slovak EU commissioner from the ultra-nationalist SMER party, has put his name forward to be the Spitzenkandidat for the Socialists but it not clear if he will be endorsed. Michel Barnier is also mentioned, but he remains chained to the Brexit millstone and cannot run until the issue is resolved.
In short, with less than 12 months to go before a new Commission president takes over, no-one has the faintest idea who it might be.
In Brussels there is talk of Merkel making the move from Berlin. This time next year she will have just two years left, after 15 years as German chancellor, unless she is greedy for a fifth term. She has always said her final political mission is to put Europe on its feet. She would have a partner in Macron who could slot in François Villeroy Galhau, the German-speaking governor of the Banque de France as president of the European Central Bank. He could gradually close the era of anti-growth, anti-jobs, monetary policy which has caused such damage to southern Europe since the financial crash.
There is a similar absence of convincing candidates for posts like the presidency of the European Council and the EU foreign policy representative. With the failure of the Spitzenkandidat system for the Commission president it is inevitable that the nominations will emerge from wheeler-dealing between EU27 presidents, chancellor and prime ministers over the next six months. Macron may have a clear vision for a reformed, more integrated Europe but he needs allies and people to run EU institutions of much higher calibre than those currently on offer.
While the British story on Europe is Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, a new chapter is opening in the way Europe is governed and what its policy priorities will turn out to be. But Britain will play no part in Europe’s future direction of travel, except as an example not to follow.
Denis MacShane was the UK’s former Minister of Europe and now writes on European politics and policy. His latest book is Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris)