It’s funny how things happen in Europe. Rarely with big bangs, but instead incrementally, bit by bit, tiny step by cautious tiny step. Next year, another step may be about to occur, an action which has potentially huge consequences for the future of the EU. Yet nobody seems to be noticing.
The Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament has nominated Martin Schulz MEP, the German President of the European Parliament, as the “common candidate” of the group for the European Elections in May of next year. This decision will be ratified in March at a S&D party congress. What does that all mean? It means that next May, the S&D group, the second largest group in the parliament, will have a designated candidate for President of the European Commission. The centre-right European People’s Party, the largest group, will nominate their own candidate in Dublin in March, as will the liberal ALDE group (possibly former Belgian PM Guy “Tintin” Verhofstadt). The Greens are holding a primary to allow ordinary EU voters to help pick their candidate here.
Of course, the European media will for the most part ignore this whole dimension, and focus on the usual local bunfights that are European Elections. However, the real fun will happen after the elections, when the member states move to nominate a new European Commission. What happens when they encounter a bolshy parliament which has, in its own mind, fought a European wide general election style campaign and has winners and losers, and designated candidates for the highest office in the EU?
But no one has heard of these people, the member states will shout, and they’ll be right. Ah, but we have, and we’ve just all been elected in a free and fair election, the parliament will reply, and they will, curiously, be right too.
But surely, the media across Europe will ask, surely the parliament is just a talking shop that can be ignored by the member states? But that’s just the point. Both the national media and indeed the national governments seem to have not quite grasped how much power they have given the European Parliament in every EU treaty, to the extent that the EP can actually block the member states’ nominee for president.
So what happens then? Well, if the member states, through the European Council, do accept the nominee of parliament, that changes everything, because once parliament gets to pick the Commission President once it will hold onto that power for ever more. That means that parliament gets to choose the Commission President into the future, and that means that we now would have an executive both chosen and dismissible by the parliament, albeit held in check by the Council acting as a powerful senate.
And that, my friends, means that Europe has now become a parliamentary democracy with a de facto prime minister answerable not to the member states but parliament. After all, the council can’t dismiss an incumbent President of the Commission, only the parliament can. And if that president is Martin Schulz, the outgoing President of the European Parliament and a man with more ties to the parliament than the national capitals…
Yet say this to the national media, and they look blankly at you.
IN IRELAND, AS IN EVERYWHERE ELSE, 1+1 MUST EQUAL 2.
A repost in honour of our exit from the Troika programme:
Every political culture has its own lexicon. In Chile under Pinochet, people feared the DINA, a secret police so lacking in subtlety that its official symbol actually was an iron fist. In Ireland, when one wants to speak of an all powerful entity, we speak of The Troika. Curiously, opinion is divided on the fiscally fastidious, neatly attired men and women from the wonderfully acronymned EUIMFECB.
The usual suspects, that section of Irish people forever bent on one knee in permanent victim status, equate them with the Gestapo or some form of evil occupying force, which would be accurate if the Gestapo had been invited into a country with vast amounts of money to spend on maintaining public services. Then there are some who say they are vampires, which is half right if someone takes into account that in ancient legend a vampire could only enter a homestead if he was invited.
There’s the problem right there, the awkward fact that grates with their opponents and negates a thousand exclamation marked People’s Front of Judea posters. The Troika didn’t arrive following massive air strikes on Merrion Square or via Tom Hanks style landings on Dollymount Strand. The Imperial March is not played when they step off their plane. They came because we couldn’t solve our own problems. We asked them to come because the people we elect were afraid to tell us the truth about what we would have to do. We needed someone else to say what we were afraid to say to ourselves. In short, we needed grown-ups.
That’s what really troubles us when he sits down with his laptop and opens his spreadsheet. He asks us questions that we don’t like asking ourselves. You want to fund that item of social spending? Sure. Just tell him who specifically is going to pay the extra tax to pay for it? It’s not an unreasonable question, but in Irish politics, where cramming the words “social justice” onto a spreadsheet is actually regarded as a mathematical answer, that is just bad manners. Hasn’t sone one told him that Irish maths is different from that maths they use in other countries?
Oh sure, there are some reading this who will be livid, but it is all faux anger. In Greece the arrival of the Troika nearly elected a communist government. In Ireland who is the most popular opposition party? The people who invited the Troika in the first place.
But what of the ugliest truth? That when we eventually exit the bailout and the Troika bid farewell, it will be their greatest opponents who will silently mourn their exit? Why? Because when Ajai & Co. have gone, we’ll be faced with an even more powerful entity that sends gut wrenching fear up and down the spine of every elected Irish leader: a body far more terrifying that the Troika because unlike them we can’t tell it to leave.
It is, in short, responsibility for our actions, and since independence, through corruption scandals and church child molestation, it has been the creature that hid in the shadows and frightened us the most. And now, when the Troika leave, and we have to survive by our own effort, it will lunge from the shadows at us, because we will be The Man from The Troika then.
The truth is, if he spoke with footnotes we’d all be better off. “The EU,” he declares, normally a few glasses of Port on board and holding court down the golf club “is obsessed with interfering in our lives. Telling us who we can employ (Women), unsound chaps (homosexuals), fellas who don’t get the culture (Muslims or non-whites) and on top of all that, then ties us up in Health and Safety nonsense (Not poisoning employees) and telling us how to run our businesses (not putting rat droppings in tins of baked beans) It’s a bloody outrage!”
The truth is, and he doesn’t even know it himself, his gripe isn’t with Europe. Europe has become the bête noire, the evil incarnation of all that he dreads, but the reality is that all those things would have come anyway.
He’s not allowed come back from a liquid lunch on a Friday afternoon, and grope the 19 year old office intern. He can’t write “No Darkies, Poofters or Paddies” on job advertisements either. And yes, he does have to treat women equally, and not sexually assault them at the Christmas party, letting them know that if they aren’t a bit friendlier they can clear their desks on Monday.
EU or no EU, no modern western country tolerates that, and whereas the EU may be ensuring that standard is the same across Europe, those standards aren’t just from Europe, they’re from modern society, and he hates that.
His problem is that he’s bought into some fantasy that it can all be reversed, that if those bastards in Brussels are sent packing he and his balding, sweating middle aged pals can all revert back to some sort of 1970s sitcom where they get to do a Benny Hill around the office and cheat their customers.
He genuinely believes that Britain outside the EU will be on an equal footing with the US, China, Brazil, and the remainder of the EU. Why? Because “we won the Battle of Britain and the 1966 World Cup, that’s why!” He’ll even throw a nuclear submarine into the mix, as if that matters. It certainly didn’t in Libya.
But you know what the strangest thing is? In France, he has a counterpart. She’s a hard left socialist who despises the EU for nearly the exact opposite reasons he does. Because it is based around a single market (Market begins with an M, as does Men!), and free trade, and yes, letting people make profit (Profit!) across borders, and lets heterosexual white men (or rapist aspirants, as she titles them) hold jobs at all. In short, she hates the EU because it recognises globalisation, and stops protectionism, and lets people travel and work and make money, and doesn’t demand the immediate nationalisation of, well, everything.
They’ll never meet each other, of course, and more’s the pity. Be fun locking them up in a lift together for a few hours, all the same.
“Now to get Guy Verhofstadt on the phone, and sew up my plan!”
Despite my passion for the EU, I have a confession. Not only have I never really been a fan of the European Parliament, but I get a bit embarrassed when the EP tries to hype up the European Elections. It’s like they’re watching all the hoopla of the US elections and shouting “But look at us! 500 million people! We matter too! Why isn’t Netflix making a TV show starring Kevin Spacey about us?”
They’re not lying of course. The European Parliament is actually one of the great secrets of modern politics, a huge well-funded body that has far more power than anybody realises, save the trades unions, businesses and other interest groups who spend millions every year lobbying it. The all-powerful European Commission, which to many eurosceptics is the EU equivalent of Darth Vader, is actually afraid of the Parliament because not only can it sack the Commission, but it has done so in the past.
Even an EPsceptic like me has to admit that it does matter. So why no excitement?
The answer is simple. The most entertaining elections are those with winners and losers. Will Angela win? Is Obama out? Will the coalition be re-elected? There are clear stakes, and even in these times where party differences are often more a question of style, the simple act of competition matters. Who has won? Who has lost?
The European Parliament, on the other hand, has been a reverse image of that. Nearly every EP has been dominated by a fudgy let’s-all-hug coalition of the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Socialists, with one president after another elected to universal “huh?” across Europe. Let’s be honest: Martin Schulz, the current president, could break into almost any house in Europe and steal your TV without the police being able to identify him. His pyjamas probably have his name labelled on the front to help his family.
This time, however, it could be different. Firstly, there is the question of the next President of the European Commission. Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union says that the European Council shall “take into account” (whatever that means) the results of the EP elections before nominating a candidate for approval by the EP. If the parties in the EP nominate their own candidates before the elections, as some are suggesting, what happens? Nobody seems sure.
But even that is not the reason why the 2014 elections could matter.
The main reason is this: for the first time since direct elections in 1979, Europe itself might well be the issue. Amazing and all as it sounds, Europe has rarely been an issue in EP elections, normally used instead by cranky electorates to give their home governments a good and harmless kicking to the political kidneys. But this time, Europe is the issue. From Greece to Germany to Finland to Portugal, there are millions of voters all heading to the polls with differing gripes about the EU and European integration itself.
On top of that, a whole range of new non-establishment parties, which have made “Give Brussels a bollocking!” a key part of their appeal, are now on the scene, and competing across Europe in proportional voting systems. UKIP in the UK, Alternative for Germany which narrowly missed entry into the Bundestag (and whose 4.8% of the vote will easily clear the 3% barrier to win seats in German Euro Elections), Geert Wilders Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, the downright sinister Golden Dawn in Greece, or even Sinn Fein in Ireland, which looks positively respectable in such company, all are serious contenders.
For the first time in EP history, there will be a very substantial bloc of members in the new parliament who do not accept the centrist post-World War II European settlement shared by Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens.
That’s not to say the new entrants will be each other’s best pals. Sinn Fein are rapidly moving towards a more pragmatic position on the EU. UKIP is very sensitive to being painted in with any racist groups, and even Marine Le Pen, aware that moderate conservatives are now willing to consider the FN as it carefully distances itself from her father’s more extreme stances (particularly on World War 2) will be careful in choosing her allies. Almost no one will want to be associated with Golden Dawn.
But the reality is that a chunk of the new assembly, when counted with the eurosceptic nationalist European Conservatives and Reform group, will for the first time provide a genuinely significant opposition to the status quo in Brussels and Strasbourg, and that’s new.
It’s also healthy, in its own way. One of the great flaws of the European capital has been that it has, for most of its history, being an echo chamber of pro-integrationists agreeing with each other. It’s not a bad thing that’s being questioned. Just a pity that so many of the questioners are fond of the strong right arm.
There was once a time when you knew where you stood. The mega wealthy, the Hearsts and the Rockefellers and the Morgans were very powerful and used their wealth to further their interests. They bought newspapers, hired muscle, politicians, judges, even started wars.
Pretty much same as today, you say?
Not quite, because at least back then they had the subtlety to keep pretty much out of the limelight, and even their hired political lackeys would pretend to be working for the ordinary joe.
Now, however, we have the surreal scenario of the plutocrat class not only having all the money but actually demanding that the rest of us, under the threat of some Fox News applied collective Chinese arm-burn, say it’s a good idea.
The pinnacle of this recent movement was, of course, the nomination of Mitt Romney, a good man (I’ll get back to that in a minute) who actually felt obliged on the campaign trail to stand up for the civil rights of corporations.
Think about that for a moment. In an age where the western middle class is genuinely fearing, for the first time since World War II, that its living standards are actually in reverse, the nominee of one of America’s two great parties felt an obligation to step in and stop billion dollar corporations being bullied by poorer people, including many of those same middle classes now fretting.
And here’s the thing: I think Mitt Romney is an honest, decent man whose values told him that those businesses were being harassed by someone and he felt it was unjust. He genuinely saw them as the victim. He’s like the guy who sees Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, and thinks “Poor Lucy! She must be so exhausted having to trick Charlie Brown and make him going flying through the air every time!”
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, Eisenhower and Churchill, both in office, and hardly doyens of the hard Left, saw mass society-wide membership trades unions as legitimate actors on the economic stage, with just as much right to be there as business. Both men sided with business, but saw society as a careful balancing act between capital and labour where both sides had to be able to walk away feeling they’d gotten their slice of the pie.
Now, you have an appalling lack of grace from the mega wealthy, where many plutocrats not only believe they should be free to use their resources (wealth) to further enrich themselves and their class, but then get indignant at the middle class for using its great resource, government through democratic elections, to pursue its class interest.
This leaves us with the jaw dropping scene of the mega wealthy feeling genuinely aggrieved, pointing fingers at people economically far beneath them and accusing them of “class war” for wanting things such as employment rights, universal health care or minimum wages.
It results in the grotesque spectacle of a US Republican Party, a party founded on the principle of righting one of the greatest wrongs of human history, now reduced to regarding the taking of food assistance from low income families and stripping them of low cost health insurance as a noble aim worth pursuing.
It is, quite simply, appallingly bad manners of the part of a class that should know better. A class that seems to lack, for want of a better word, class.
When one reads British conservative and Eurosceptic websites, one can be struck by a common theme that runs through them. This is the assumption that the great majority of British people are very strongly opposed to further participation in the European Union, and will definitely vote for withdrawal, if given the opportunity.
Whilst I admit winning a Yes To Remain vote is a challenge, I’m not convinced that a vote to withdraw is the absolute in-the-bank result many eurosceptics seem to believe. Consider, for example, Yougov’s April poll, which gave a 43%-35% lead to those advocating withdrawal. Pretty depressing stuff for pro-Europeans, you’d think, but I’m not sure.
The fact that in THE most Eurosceptic country in the EU, in a country where nearly every newspaper is opposed to EU membership, over a third of voters are STILL pro-EU, before a campaign even starts, is extraordinary.
Then add in the campaign itself, with the prime minister coming back from Brussels with some (admittedly modest) reforms, but then mounting a Stay In campaign with EVERY living former prime minister? This thing could be much closer.
Now, supposing it’s a narrow Yes to remain, say, 53% on a turnout of 55%. What now for the eurosceptics? Will they demand a second vote, suddenly discovering a deep and profound respect for the Irish constitution?
Because let us not underestimate exactly how beneath the political waterline such a result will hole them. They have built an entire political movement, an ethos even, on the idea that the British people were tricked in 1975, and that the EU now is a bastardised conspiracy going far further than that which was mandated in Harold Wilson’s referendum.
But a Yes vote wipes that whole slate clean.
I genuinely think we may see an outbreak of psychological and emotional breakdown on the No side if such an event were to occur. Bear in mind, this isn’t just a victory for the hated Brussels. This is a betrayal by the people of glorious Albion themselves. A Yes vote will devastate the image many eurosceptics have of Britain and the British.
Indeed, the more extreme elements may even start talk of a coup, as they did during the chaotic days of the 1970s, believing their values represented the real Britain and therefore overruled the mere votes of the riff-raff. Will they start drawing lines around areas that voted for withdrawal, for example, and start demanding that those areas should be permitted leave? Mad stuff, I know, but these are the people who talk of EUSSR and the Fourth Reich.
Let us be clear. A vote to withdraw will be respected by Parliament, the government, and Britain’s European partners.
But that also means that a vote to remain most be respected by the eurosceptics, and I’m not sure they’ve prepared themselves for that. The NHS would have to be ready.
Angela Merkel’s handsome victory in the German elections is yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of how the Left across the Western world seem to be either incapable of winning elections, or, on gaining power, not seeing their public support collapse.
In recent years, and all within a period of crisis for international capitalism, conservatives have ousted or defeated social democrats in Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Britain, Canada, and Poland. In Ireland the dominant conservative Fianna Fail party suffered a terrible defeat in 2011, but only to be replaced by an equally conservative Fine Gael. In France the Hollande administration is amongst one of the most unpopular governments to have ever sat in the Elysee Palace, with former President Sarkozy regularly outpolling the incumbent. Only in the US have the Democrats managed to hold on, by being what would be to the Left in most other Western countries a centrist and even conservative party.
Why is it? Why can the Left not grasp the opportunity? One possible answer is that the Left is now actually the conservative anti-change side in modern politics. Many on the Left seem to dedicate more effort to protecting the vested interests of specific sections of society, even as those sections have actually shrunk. For example, both the British Labour Party and the Spanish PSOE seem more concerned with protecting the benefits of existing public sector workers than with helping larger numbers of younger workers into permanent employment.
In addition, the Left seem to struggle with communicating that a modern welfare society needs the balanced approach of rights AND responsibilities, and that welfare in the winter needs everyone to contribute in the spring. The modern Left is very easy at spending money and opposing cuts when in opposition, yet positively Gingrichian in refusing to sell equally the responsibility of all citizens to fiscally contribute to the funding of the welfare state when in power.
Likewise, the failure of the Left to grasp that the ground has shifted on cultural issues has led to its alienation within traditionally loyal voter groups. In Britain, France and the Netherlands, for example, Labour parties are losing voters on the immigration issue to populist parties on the right, with those Left parties paralysed from even addressing the issue for fear of breaking age old internal taboos about race and in particular multiculturalism. The casualness with which people on the Left are willing to brand anyone who disagrees with them (including their own potential voters) as racist or sexist indicates a desire by many on the Left to conform to an ideological purity checklist over actually winning a majority of voters to their argument.
Even now, in Ireland, the hard-line Left parties are struggling to breech the margin of error in opinion polls, despite Ireland having bailed out banks with billions of euro of taxpayers money. Despite genuine anger, the public still refuse to align behind traditional left wing arguments. Why is that? One possible cause is the refusal of the hard Left to recognise that the public does not accept the argument as being for or against capitalism. The public do not hate capitalism, or wish to abolish it. Instead, they want manners put on it, normally with a big state stick. Yet this doesn’t fit in with the One More Push for Socialist Utopia pushed by the hard Left and not believed by anybody else. Capitalism, in whatever shape, is the only game being played now, and has, much to the anger of the Left, popular support.
Curiously, one has to look to South America to see left wing parties winning power, but often only when absolutely shocking disparities between the rich and everybody else are permitted to fester. The reality is that these huge gaps just don’t exist in the western world, thanks to the wealth redistribution of the welfare system.
Is it possible that they could emerge? You’d be foolish to rule it out. But does it mean that the lower half of society has to be pushed to absolute breaking point before it votes left?
One of the more valid arguments put forward by British eurosceptics is the fact that Britain can happily trade with the United States without having to join the US. This is, of course, true. The truth is, it is not in Britain or the remaining EU’s interest not to maintain a healthy and cooperative relationship post British exit.
However, let’s be clear about one thing: whereas the US and Britain are friends and allies, they are not equal partners. Britain is Robin to the US’s Batman, and whereas Batman cared about Robin, we had no doubt who was in charge: 320 million people to 63 million will do that.
Likewise, we will be trusted allies, 440 million Tintins to their 63 million Snowys. But sheer size will decide who decides what, and who goes “woah! woah!”
There’s a lot of talk recently in Tory backbench circles about joint Tory-UKIP candidates. If I were Nigel Farage, I’d be treading very carefully at this moment, and pondering what it is that has elevated UKIP to its current handsome showing in the polls. Looking at the polls, and where UKIP voters are coming from, there is a Tory bent, but that’s not all. There’s a reasonable suggestion that some disgruntled Old Labour voters are also coming onboard, and also that section of voters that just hate the political establishment. As both the Lib Dems in the UK and Green Party in Ireland discovered, a party can shed votes as quick as it secured them if it gets too close to one of those political establishment pillars. Be warned, Nige.