The first truly European elections

IRISH voters, long used to choosing between political parties that grew out of Civil War politics, are expected to “do it like the Europeans” by casting a vote for right, centre or left-wing candidates in next year’s European elections.

For the first time, they will have a say not just in their local MEP, but also in who becomes the next president of the European Commission as well as of the European Parliament.

This will become the first truly European election, according to Martin Schulz, current president of the European Parliament, and the man most likely to be the candidate of the Socialist group. He expects that Taoiseach Enda Kenny will promote a candidate from the centre-right Christian Democrats, and the European People’s Party, of which Fine Gael is a member, to be the next presidents of the powerful EU institutions. Labour leader Eamon Gilmore will be campaigning for a member of the Socialists, to which his party belongs. Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin will be doing likewise for the Liberals, while Gerry Adams will be pushing for a far-left candidate. In all cases, the candidate is unlikely to be Irish.

Schulz argued his case on an Aer Lingus flight to Ireland, where he was discussing the EU’s seven-year budget, on which Ireland, holding the EU presidency until July, is trying to reach agreement with the parliament.

The elections in May or June next year are being radically affected by yet another impact of the Lisbon Treaty that was little known or understood up to now, he explains.

“The election will be in the form of a national campaign with international candidates; you could have Kenny promoting a Spanish, or Gilmore pushing for a French. For the first time, people will realise it is a European election, not a normal one. This will increase voters interest, not push it to 80%, but increase it,” he said.

For the first time, leaders of the member states will have the decision on who will be the next president of the commission, exclusively. They will have to consult with the group in the parliament with the largest majority.

Mr Schulz says the Lisbon Treaty is quite clear on this and, since no political group is expected to have a majority on its own of 51% or more, they will have to build a coalition and agree who they will support for commission president.

For the past few terms in the parliament, this coalition has resulted in the groups sharing the presidency, dividing it into two with their candidates taking two-and-a-half years each.

But Schulz believes this will not be possible for the commission. “You need at least a five-year term to manage it,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of José Manuel Barroso serving a third term, he replied that he knew the rumours but “could not make judgments about my colleagues and their ambitions”.

As the person most likely at the moment to be chosen by the Socialists to be their presidential candidate, Mr Schulz’s chances of getting the German nomination would be vastly increased if the Socialists win in September’s general election. But the more likely outcome is a grand coalition between the Socialists and the CDU party of Angela Merkel.

There have been rumours too that the German chancellor may be interested in heading up the commission, but he believes this will not happen unless the post is united with that of president of the council, currently held by Herman Van Rompuy, though this would require that the EU treaties be changed and that will not happen before next year’s elections.

Meanwhile, Mr Schulz has to fight for a deal on the EU’s €900m, seven-year budget. The parliament believes the sum agreed by the member states is insufficient to run the growth-enhancing, forward-looking policies needed for the EU, but on the table also are a series of measures that MEPs support.

Currently, it ends up as a fight, mostly for domestic consumption, with the needs of a united EU far down the agenda, as most of the budget comes from national funds. Schulz describes this as “nothing other than an ideological fight” and intends to battle hard for a new system of own resources where funds will come mostly from revenue dedicated to the EU, such as from a financial transaction tax.

However, he concedes there is little enthusiasm among states for this move, as they see it as a transfer of more powers to the EU.

He believes that when the parliament negotiates on the budget this week, there will be an overwhelming majority in favour of a system of own resources and he hopes that the member states will at least agree to a timetable for this in the final negotiations.


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