First lessons for the EU and for the U.K.
Let us for once enjoy some excellent news concerning the EU! Participation in the poll reached 51% across Europe, an increase of 25% compared with 2014, indicating a major shift in public opinion. Even if only one out of two electors voted, it expresses, nevertheless unequivocally the acceptance of the central role of the EU in the handling of a number of key questions close to the preoccupations of the population.. This message, as already expressed in my previous article, is far better assimilated by the citizens than by the politicians who are supposed to represent them.
This spectacular about-face encompasses multiple trends:
The predicted reinforcement of Eurosceptic parties.
Despite considerable differences at national level, progress was less than expected within the EU as a whole. Due to their own internal incoherencies, this should reduce significantly their influence in the new EP. Indeed, the apparent conversion of some of these parties, posturing as “European reformists”, helped them to retain some of their adherents; however, the contradictions implicit in their programs will prove incompatible with the requirements of shared “sovereignty” in the areas of defense, foreign policy, currency, industrial and digital policies, immigration, climate change, standards, etc., requested by citizens.
Insofar as this fundamental shift in opinion takes hold, the Parliament that is ending may have, retrospectively, marked the nadir of citizen’s hate/love affair with the European project at the same time as last week’s elections may indicate the high point of “national-populists” at the ballot-box. It is in this light that one should judge the half-hearted victory of the Rassemblement National in France which may augur the defeat of Marine Le Pen in the 2022 French presidential elections.
The spectacular breakthrough of the ecologists.
Climate change being one of the emblematic subjects where shared sovereignty at European level is inescapable, the progress of this party is a good omen for underlining the importance that the EU can have on everyday life. The success of the ecologists, in particular in mobilizing the younger generation – until recently hardly implicated in the European project –| is capable of transforming not only the balance power within the EP, in which the EPP and S|& D have lost their historic majority, but could weigh on the composition of the Commission and impact the domestic programs of some national governments.
The surge within the “liberal” alliance and President Macron’s party.
Similarly to the Greens, the increased weight of this group will contribute to the new equilibrium among the political parties in the EP. This realignment should not focus primarily on a fairer distribution of key positions within the institution (President, vice-presidents, questors, presidents of commissions, rapporteurs, etc.) even if initially it may take precedence, but should be seized upon as an opportunity to rethink how the EP operates and how to reinforce its democratic legitimacy. One of the main challenges will be to find sufficient competent, qualified and experienced MEPs among the plethora of new Members to exert their influence and ensure the smooth functioning of the Assembly. Indeed, its arcane modus operandi differ often substantially from procedures in their respective Member States, as the 21new MEPs of LREM are about to discover.
Reforming the European Parliament.
Without waiting for an (indispensable) Treaty change whose agenda setting, negotiations and ratification can take longer than is acceptable, Parliament should take hold immediately of those elements over which it has control. A first objective should be turning upside down the logic on which the formation of the “political groups” is currently based in order to create truly EU-wide parties, freed from the oversight of the national parties (and governments) to which their Members belong. Furthermore, these parties should negotiate, after each election, a common legislative program commanding a majority in the EP. The choice of Commission President and Commissioners would take these results into account, conferring greater democratic legitimacy on the Commission. Many of the drawbacks of the current “spitzenkandidat” model would be eliminated, while recognizing that it played a useful – but today obsolete – role towards the democratization of the Union.
Impact of Brexit on the EU (27).
The results of the EP elections in the U.K. (discussed hereunder) will have a significant impact on the EU (27) in the months if not the years to come. Being managed simultaneously with the process of installation of the new EP as well as the designation of holders of key EU institutions positions, it is important that Brexit is not allowed to pollute these processes and postpone – perhaps irretrievably – progress towards a Union that is more efficient, provides better protection and is closer to its citizens.
For that reason, it seems appropriate to agree that October 31st will be the final date for Brexit. This decision should be taken during the intermediary European Council (27) scheduled at the end of June and the result communicated to London even before the designation of the new PM. The only acceptable motive for a prolongation would be the calling by the British Parliament of a Referendum to be held before yearend, specifying its modalities (eligibility of electors) and spelling out the “question” being asked. Allowing for this limited extension of EU membership would clearly put the responsibility of a “no deal” exit on the British PM, whom ever he may be. The current Withdrawal Agreement would remain (unchanged) on the table until October 31st.
This clarification, communicated before the new EP convenes on July 2nd, will severely constrain the ability of new British MEPs to disrupt the agenda of the Parliament. It should also be stressed that a “no deal” Brexit can be triggered by default either by the British Government failing to request an extension or by the Council refusing to grant it.
Impact of the European election on the UK.
If the Brexit Party will be sending the greatest number of MEPs of any single European party to Brussels, it should be noted that these elections (despite a low 37% turnout) resulted in a slightly higher share of the vote for parties committed to “Remain”. Nevertheless, these elections leave the British political landscape in tatters, leading presumably to a deep transformation of the traditional bipolar structure of the House of Commons. Its consequences are totally unpredictable and could result in the ultimate disintegration of the United Kingdom; indeed Scotland has reiterated unequivocally its preference for remaining within the EU, a demand which will only increase in the event of a “no deal” exit.
This situation is disastrous, principally for the British, but not without adverse consequences for the EU. The results of the poll have polarized the campaign for electing the new PM, increasing considerably the likelihood of a “no deal” exit (justifying the measures recommended above). Abandoning any pretense of of serving the interests of the country and its citizens, the leadership campaign is focused on the general elections that should follow a “no deal” Brexit. The foreseeable rout of the Tories would either land Labor – itself deeply divided over Brexit – in power or require turning resolutely to “coalition politics”, contrary to a long established tradition. Chaos could be all the greater if the participation of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in the poll led, for the first time in Britain, to the emergence of a significant rightwing “nationalist” party, ideologically aligned with Donald Trump and other nationalist parties. Such an outcome would reinforce the camp of Putin, Trump and Xi who, like many Brexeteers, consider the EU as essentially a rich “consumer market” whose fragmentation and confinement to a status of “political dwarf” suits them perfectly.
The European elections have delivered a better than expected verdict which should allow relaunching the European project on a new and stronger basis. The wishes of a large majority of citizens who have expressed their desire for “more Europe” must be met. It is of paramount importance that this opportunity not be wasted on the altar of personal ambitions and political calculations, allowing a new generation of leaders to emerge, capable of delivering the aspirations expressed by Europe’s population.
This means putting at the center of preoccupations education, the environment and greater social justice. To meet this challenge, the EU must muster its abundant financial, intellectual and cultural resources so as to ensure the security, the protection and the prosperity of its citizens.
If this unique opportunity is not taken advantage of, it is likely never to present itself again; it recreates, five years later, the conditions of the prophecy of Jean-Claude Juncker on being the “Commission of the last chance”. It does not reduce, by any means, the risk of geopolitical risks (including a global financial crisis) derailing the relaunch of the European project before its benefits are secured.
It remains nevertheless perfectly obvious that turning inwardly and advocating policies of hate and discrimination cannot lay the ground for a world in which future generations will be able to live; only a spirit of solidarity with its corollary of responsibility is capable of preparing the bright future we all wish for our children.