Hard times could lead to big changes in the EU Parliament

The change in how the top jobs in the EU are allocated, coupled with the rise of anti-austerity parties, could produce a very different parliament, writes Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill.

Hard times could lead to big changes in the EU Parliament

‘THIS time it’s different’ could be the slogan for the European Parliament elections.

The next president of the European Commission should come from the party with the most votes — effectively meaning he (or she) will be elected by the people.

But it is different this time because it is the first post-austerity EU election, the first when sufficient candidates declare that democracy, their countries, and politics in general, is not working. They could take up to 200 of the 751 seats.

The lead candidates of the mainstream parties are arguing for “more Europe” with liberal ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt saying Europe must either “combine or decline” faced with global competition for jobs and pressure from other cultures.

But an austerity-plagued electorate is turning up a plethora of colourful candidates ranging from neo-Nazi to tea-party and everything in between.

In an effort to engage voters — just 43% turned out five years ago across the EU — the Socialists came up with the idea of personalising the campaign. They reasoned if it could be done in the US across 50 states, it could be done across 28 — even with 24 different languages.

Each party has a lead candidate, and most are touring the EU in campaign buses, delivering speeches, holding town-hall sessions and engaging on social media. But the going is tough, with the five rivals answering questions live for 90 minutes on Euronews, picked up mainly by web streaming media and co-hosted by RTÉ’s Conor McNally.

There are no audience figures — but it is bound to have been fewer than the 180m that watched the Eurovision. And while the 60,000 tweets last Thursday during the 90 minutes saw the event trend on Twitter and Facebook, it was well short of the 10m on Obama’s first presidential debate in 2012.

The party with most seats will put forward their person for perhaps the most powerful job in the EU — president of the commission. Up to now the choice has been made in secret usually late in the evening by the prime ministers of the member states with the parliament rubber stamping their choice.

It’s a new twist in the continuing battle over who is top-dog in the EU. After five years dancing to the tune of mainly the German parliament, the Irish Government says it is firmly in favour of the community method where the commission manages the business.

But even with up to 20 of EU governments with Socialist or left-leaning parties in power, latest polls show the most seats going to the centre right European People’s Party, of which Fine Gael is a member.

The real contest is between right and left — the Socialists and the European People’s Party — with the smaller liberal ALDE perhaps being king-maker. But the next question will be whether the next commission president will be strong and independent enough to write their own agenda for the next five years.

Member states, especially the big donor countries, have either over-ruled or dictated to the commission for close to two terms. Whether a parliament-backed commission could balance the big national players is anybody’s guess, but these elections could be the first step.

In many countries, the battle is between eurosceptics and pro-EU candidates. Sceptics could top the poll in some states, including in France and Denmark. But some argue that rather than making the parliament ungovernable, it could glue, more closely together, the pro-EU parties. And past performance shows the more radical MEPs on the right and left are least involved. People like Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party are famous at home for their colourful anti EU stance, but influence very little at EU level. UKIP voted in only 66% of votes on new legislation — the lowest of any group according to VoteWatch.eu.

While Germany had the best average in producing reports on legislation where the parliament has equal decision with the member states, the next best was Ireland, showing MEPs don’t have to come from a big country.

But, ironically, Germany is not too happy with the German MEP whose group may well get the most votes, entitling him to be considered for the job of next commission president.

Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists who are just 1% behind the EPP according to the latest poll, has pushed the idea of “Spitzenkandidaten”, (top candidate) giving a German word to the EU lexicon — a rare event. But it would require chancellor Angela Merkel to nominate him as her country’s commissioner, and even though she is in a grand coalition with the Socialists in Germany, she is reluctant.

Instead, she has supported the former and colourful prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean Claude Juncker, an EPP member chosen by ballot at the group’s last meeting in Dublin. The suspicion is he is not interested in what would be a tedious and difficult job and would prefer the more languorous job heading up the council.

Next Monday, after the votes have all been counted, the heads of the parliament political groups will meet to discuss the outcome, their candidates and strategies.

The following evening, less than 1km away, the leaders of the 28 EU countries will gather to plan their strategy, taking into account the result. It will be the first time in the union’s 60-year history they will have to take into account an institution outside their own in their deliberations.

The strategy planning is already well under way. So a package of top jobs has been put together — presidents of the commission and the council, the foreign affairs post, and a new role of permanent president of the euro group. To this will be added the president of the parliament which could be split into two half terms — as could the council president job.

There will be lots of meetings and negotiations between the parliament and the outgoing president of the council, Herman Van Rompuy, to find a solution. The member states cannot be seen to ignore “the will of the people” in terms of which group got most votes — but in the end parties will be happy to produce a suitable candidate, easing out their “Spitzenkandidaten” if necessary.

It could take months to put together the package, although the official timeline is that the commission president is elected by the parliament on July 14-17, with a vote on the full commission in October.

In this space, several names could come up, including that of Enda Kenny, for one of the jobs. His name has not been heard much in Brussels corridors recently, which could help.

In the meantime, the two biggest groups, the EPP and the Socialists, meet to elect new leaders, while all groups will be looking to recruit new members and a new group or two may form provided they have at least 25 members from a quarter of the member states.

But, on July 1, the new MEPs will take their seats and elect a parliament president, 14 vice presidents and six questers. The number of chairs, vice chairs and members of the 20 plus committees will be allocated to each political group based on their number of seats. The names may be decided later.

In September/October each country’s commissioner will be questioned in public by MEPs — a negative report can lead to his or her withdrawal. If the decision on the commission president ignores the parliament vote, bad-tempered MEPs could give them a rough ride.

And launch a whole new battle for the next phase of the EU.

Euro election parties and their lead candidates

* Jean Claude Juncker and the European People’s Party — EPP:

Conservative, centre-right, and the largest group in the parliament and in national governments. Fine Gael is a member.

With two-thirds of the votes, it held 274 of the 766 seats and is expected to win just 212 this time — remaining the biggest group by a whisker.

Their MEPs chaired half the committees, one third of the vice-presidencies of the parliament, and two of the five quaestors. They won 90% of all their votes.

Mr Juncker, pictured, ousted as Luxembourg premier last year, chaired the eurogroup meetings for the past five years and, while a committed capitalist, expressed sympathy for Greece.

* Martin Schulz and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D):

This left-leaning group was the second largest in parliament. It has overtaken the EPP in national politics with 20 in national governments.

It held 196 seats with 25.6% of the vote and is predicted to win 209 seats with 28% of the vote — remaining the second largest group.

Ireland had three Socialist members reduced to two when Nessa Childers became independent. If Labour loses all its MEPs perhaps their place might be taken by Sinn Féin, currently with far left GUE.

Germany’s Martin Schulz, left, has been president of the parliament and campaigning all over Europe for the past few months. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi made him famous telling him he should have been a capo in a concentration camp. The left is generally split over this man who has done his best to popularise Europe.

* ALDE — Liberals

With 10% of the vote and 83 seats this group has played an occasional role over the past five years, but may return to the pivotal role last seen when Pat Cox headed the centre-right group and became parliament president.

It is forecast to drop to 63 seats with around 8% of the vote but is a traditional ally for the EPP in economic and industry issues for instance. ALDE could win a half term as parliament president or see one of its MEPs — such as outgoing Finnish commissioner Olli Rehn — chair the parliament’s important economic committee.

Fianna Fáil for the past five years has been a member, along with independent Marian Harkin.

Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, above, is lead candidate.

* Greens/European Free Alliance:

The parliament’s main Green party with no Irish MEPs at the moment is forecast to drop to 38 from 57 seats. It loses its iconic leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit who rose to fame in the Paris student riots in the 1960s and held seats in France and Germany.

Ska Keller, at 32, is the youngest and only female lead candidate.

* European United Left/Nordic Green Left: GUE:

Left-leaning socialist, communist, and anti-capitalist MEPs whose current 35 seats make them sixth of the eight parties. The group’s share is forecast to grow to 51 seats to become the fourth largest group and larger if joined by the German and Austrian Pirates parties. Socialist Paul Murphy belongs to this group, as does Sinn Féin.

Alexis Tsipras is its lead candidate. He shot to fame in Greece when he became leader of the second largest and main opposition party, Syriza, in 2012 at 37 years of age. He is vehemently against the EU’s austerity policies.

* European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR):

Formed by the British Tories when they left the EPP and joined with eurosceptic and lukewarm groups including the Polish Law and Justice. With 57 seats it is joint-fifth and forecast to drop to 43 seats. It is not fielding a lead candidate.

* Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD):

Britain’s UKIP and Italy’s Northern League are members of this eurosceptic group. It is the second smallest group with 31 seats and is expected to win 39 seats.

It does not have a lead candidate.

* Non-attached (NI):

Many of the 33 MEPs who did not join any group have extreme-right nationalist views and they are expected to almost treble their numbers taking more than 12% of the vote.

Nessa Childers, who does not have extreme-right or nationalist views, is non-attached having left Labour and the Socialists — she may join ALDE if re-elected.

Colourful candidates in EU countries:

Geert Wilders: Anti-Islam, EU, immigrant, and bailout policies.

* Britain: (73 seats)

Dr Noelle Anne O’Sullivan: One of several non-British running under a pro-EU banner for the 4 Freedoms Party, based mainly in London, hoping to win votes from EU migrants. UKIP has poisoned the debate and if Britain was to leave, it would have huge consequences for Ireland also, she says.

* Germany: (96)

The far-rght National Democratic Party espouses anti-Semitic and homophobic messages, but the party is in with a chance. Just a 1% share of the vote could win a seat, not just for the NDP but for a plethora of parties wanting to throw Greece out of the euro, and Muslims and foreigners out of Europe. Advocating rebuilding the Berlin Wall, Die Partei wants a quota for lazy people in leading business jobs and wildlife protection status for the Green party. Other candidates want to leave the euro while the Pirates want a basic income for all.

* Netherlands: (26)

Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party are leading in the polls with their anti-Islam, EU, immigrant, and bailout policies. Most Dutch patios are closer to the UK attitude of the EU being good for trade.

* Belgium: (21)

Holding the mother of elections with local, national (four governments), and EU votes. The N-VA, a Flemish separatist, anti-migrant, and anti-Greek party, could take three seats.

* Austria: (18)

Socialists expected to come first despite its lead candidate, a former TV anchor, not knowing where the European Parliament sits and being accused of being a former Yugoslavian spy.

One lead candidate has fallen out with his party, doesn’t feature on election posters, but is still expected to get 25% of the vote. The right-wing anti-immigrant Freedom Party of Austria is doing fine despite its leading MEP being ousted for calling the EU a “collection of negros”.

* France: (74)

Some 3,600 candidates are fighting for 74 seats and need to win at least 5% of the vote to be elected. Marine Le Pen’s National Front is expected to top the poll and join UKIP and Wilders’ party to “wreck the EU from within”. Meanwhile, the first feminist party has candidates; a party dedicated to fight against lobbies is running; Citizens Europe is fielding non-politicians; and Alliance Royale wants to bring back a king and get rid of immigrants.

* Italy: (73)

L’Altra Europa con Tsipras has been inspired by the Greek opposition leader and lead candidate for the leftist GUE group. Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement could become the second largest group after the centre-left Democratic Party. He could take 25% with his message that Italy and the EU are not working.

* Spain: (54)

Union, Progress & Democracy hopes to increase its one seat in the parliament on a ticket advocating a more federal Spain and Europe and rejecting separatist movements.

* Poland: (51)

Congress of the New Right espouses the right to bear arms, wants to privatise health and education, legalise all drugs, is anti-abortion and birth control, and anti-EU.

* Czech Republic: (21)

YES 2011 expects to take a fifth of seats, led by the country’s second richest man. Andrej Babis leases a lot of agricultural land, bought the biggest media company in the country, and became finance minister. The Dawn of Direct Democracy is led by an entrepreneur of Korean, Moravian, and Japanese descent with a tough line of immigrants.

* Slovakia: (13)

Ordinary People and Independent Personalities is a group of just that — candidates include whistleblowers and NGO leaders.

* Romania: (32)

The Popular Movement Party hopes to guarantee the rule of law and protect the independence of the justice system.

* Bulgaria: (17) Bulgaria Without Censorship is led by a former TV journalist promising free tablets to students and mandatory military service, especially for the Roma. Has not said where his generous funds come from, but some suspect the country’s biggest media owner.

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