For weeks, the Brussels bubble has been enthusiastically sharing scenarios about the day after the European Parliament elections, which take place from May 22 to 25. Will there be an interinstitutional battle between the parliament and the European Council, the EU’s heads of state and government? Will the next president of the European Commission finally represent one party-political position more than another?
Knowing how different the perspectives are between those inside and outside the bubble, I would challenge the conventional wisdom in Brussels on several counts. There are three things that will not happen the day after the elections.
First, the EU will not have created a European demos, one of the staple ingredients of European lore. The euro crisis is already supposed to have brought the EU closer than ever to a pan-European electorate. That has certainly happened, but not in the sense that Europe’s federalists pretend. The crisis has not only made Europeans aware of their interdependence but also opened up or sharpened antagonisms, especially between Germany and the Mediterranean member states. That has greatly contributed to the growth of populist parties in France, Italy, Greece, and even Germany.
The pan-European political parties have used a provision in the Lisbon Treaty—that the member states’ choice of the next commission president must be made “in view of the election result”—to nominate their own candidates. That move is supposed to have achieved what the euro crisis couldn’t: to give citizens the feeling they belong to one electorate.
This idea has its charm. But for it to work, there has to be a minimum of difference in substance between the candidates representing the two main political parties. And that is simply not the case for Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker, who represent the Socialists and the center-right respectively.
From their commitments to “social Europe” to their verbose critique of overregulation, not to mention their views on foreign policy and “facing up to the Americans,” the two leading candidates agree. Where they differ, it’s by tiny degrees. In other words, the EU has wasted a real chance to pit economic freedom against state interventionism, or a more robust commitment to the West against the anything-goes attitude of the Left.
The second thing that will not happen on May 26 is the emergence of a strong populist bloc in the parliament. Ever since a sense of near-hysteria spread through the Brussels bubble in the fall of 2013, the expectation of an increased number of nationalists and populists from the Left and the Right has led to a sense of a “beleaguered fortress” among European federalists.
But while the rise in the number of populist members of parliament is no reason to celebrate, let’s not forget one thing. Populists, too, are the democratically elected representatives of a certain share of EU citizens. Their views may be nauseating, but as long as they don’t do anything punishable, they will have to be treated as the parliamentarians they are.
The main problem these people pose is the perfectly predictable reaction they will cause among mainstream parties. After the elections, there will be a lot of hand-wringing, and there will be no lack of appeals for the center-right, the Socialists, the Liberals, and the Greens to face up to the new danger as a united front. That will be grist to the mill of the populists, who can turn round to their voters and say, “There you are: They’re all the same. We are the only alternative.”
What the populists will not do is form a strong and politically relevant bloc that influences legislation. The differences among them—on the market economy, regionalism, and fiscal consolidation, to name but a few topics—are too big. Their willingness to do real parliamentary work is too weak. Populists are much stronger in their home countries, where they scare their respective national governments.
The third event that will not occur is a drawn-out conflict between the parliament and the council over the nomination of the next commission president. Many members of parliament are relishing the prospect of a Manichaean struggle with the member-state governments: a fight that, they believe, casts them as the true representatives of “the people” against the evil intergovernmentalists in the EU’s inexhaustible supply of back rooms.
Of course, no one outside a certain perimeter around Brussels’s EU district will ever understand, let alone appreciate, this robust defense of European democracy. And, of course, a protracted battle over the commission presidency would paralyze the union and destroy whatever goodwill may have been gained through the idea of proposing party candidates.
The good news is that all this is extremely unlikely. As Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, said recently: the future president of the commission will need a majority in both the council and the parliament. According to all forecasts, a majority in parliament will only be possible with a “grand coalition” of center-right and Socialists.
These two big political parties have already said that whichever party ends up ahead will get to field the commission president. This looks like a solid commitment. There is a good chance that by May 27, when national leaders meet for their postelection summit, the fog of war will have lifted, and it will be pretty clear which political family is the strongest.
Much has been made of a scenario in which the many new, small, and often populist parties that have not yet decided which pan-European party to join will tilt the balance between the two big political families. This might happen in the five weeks between the elections and the parliament’s first plenary session on July 1. But it is unlikely that this will significantly alter the election result.
Few of these parties stand to join one of the two big groups. Italy’s Five Star Movement may or may not join the Greens, and the Alternative for Germany will join the conservative bloc, if anyone. If the difference between the Socialists and the center-right is more than five seats after the votes are counted, the movements of small parties in the upcoming weeks should not make a difference.
Where does all this leave the EU? Has the Lisbon Treaty’s clause on the (s)election of the commission president really politicized Europe? Alas, the answer is no, because the mainstream parties have wasted their chance to present any recognizable alternative. And to get a double majority in the parliament and among national leaders, the next commission president will have to promise everything to everyone—just as the outgoing president, José Manuel Barroso, did in 2009.
The views above represent the personal opinion of the author.