“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.