#EP2014 vol. 1: the Parliament, the Commission, …

I was going to write something on the general results of the European elections, but I keep coming back to France and to the results there. So let’s split this into two parts: first part on the European level; second part on France and the (now inevitable) Front National.
The European Parliament, first. The new Parliament as it came out of the elections can be checked here, and some country-specific reactions here on the blog of the LSE.
The new Parliament will be a bit more split than it was, merely because the “main” groups are smaller than they used to be. The entry in Parliament of “euroskeptic” MEPs (for want of a better term) does not mean that they will immediately wreck havoc or deliver on their promises of complete overhaul of “the system”. Euroskeptic MEPs have rarely taken the Parliament as more than a stage for gesticulations destined to audiences at home. A quick glance at what Nigel Farrage or Timo Soini did during their tenure will give you an idea of how active they have been in the Parliament. Not much, and mostly not on things that matter – in commission work, in the preparation of reports and in the daily routines of the Parliament. There might be a new generation of more active and more decided MEPs, but I somehow doubt it. Pervenche Berès, an old Parliament hand from the French Socialist party, doubts it as well.
Profoundly the reason is that most of these people don’t care. They have been elected to a system they do not consider as legitimate, and have their eyes set on their domestic fields and audiences at home. Most of these parties also suffer from a lack of resources: being low on capable and experienced cadres, they will send to the Parliament inexperienced, and sometimes downright goofy characters. Some of them might even be only very loosely on line with their own party – an exemple with this candidate from the Front National, Joëlle Bergeron, elected on Sunday and who declared being in favor of foreigners getting the right to vote in the country they live in – which is not at all the FN party  line (because, you know, muslim invasion, mosques everywhere, Romanian thugs and the like).  In an interesting display, Bergeron was forced by Marine Le Pen to resign her newly acquired mandate and leave the post to the third in line on the FN local list. How much similar cases hide under the unanimity born of electoral triumph?
One of the question marks is the capacity of the FN to hatch around its own group of MEPs a dedicated “euroskeptic” group, which would give them the possibility to influence the order of the day and other parliamentary matters. Considering the conditions (25 MEPs from 7 different countries), this is rather unlikely to happen. Amongst possible candidates for such a group, many (UKIP most prominently) have already announced that they wouldn’t join the club. In the high testosterone, nationally-minded world of these parties, and in the highly bureaucratic environment of a Parliament they don’t truly accept, cooperation won’t come naturally. Some (UKIP, again) would rather work with the conservatives than being associated with the likes of Golden Dawn or the FN. Another formula might be an expansion of the EFD to accommodate a number of newcomers. Let’s see…
The second question mark is the name of the new President of the Commission and the commissioners. The two main names, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, can both interpret the result as good for them. The EPP is still the biggest group in the Parliament, and Juncker would seem a conveniently “intergovernmental” name, readily acceptable by traumatized national leaders – who, despite all talks of “taking into account the result of the European elections”, are still calling the shots – unfortunately, but in sync with the desires of European public opinions. On the other hand, the EPP cannot achieve anything without entering in a coalition with other groups. Will the fear of paralysis and a common rejection of the euroskeptic “barbarians at the gates” push the two main groups – EEP and S&D – to collaborate? In that case, and if there needs to be a balance between conservative national governments and the Parliament, Schulz has a chance.
A typical move would, of course, be a compromise name drawn by the member-states out of the hat. One could imagine a former commissioner. That might also be someone from a small country, a sufficiently bland and consensual character. The game has been on in Finland, for example, with everybody and his dog being rumored as “available for European duty”. Jyrki Katainen, who stepped down as Prime Minister in the spring, might be a suitable compromise name, if he can go over Finland’s reputation as a hardline austerity country. Personal note here: if this kind of prospect for a Finnish politician would become a bit more concrete, there will be no living in this country for a few months at least. The amount of collective self-congratulation if a Finn gets the presidency of the Commission, and the equal amount of self-laceration if “our boy” doesn’t get it, will be properly unbearable.
In any case, the new President of the Commission will be placed in the same conundrum as José Manuel Barroso was, stuck between the member-states and the EU system, with very little means to step out of the the reservation in which the member-states are eager to keep him. Schulz might be the exception, who showed a little will to make the post into something more political – which is, I think, exactly why he won’t get it.  Beyond institutional pot stirring, thus, the structural problem of the EU will not change with these elections. Arthur Goldhammer summarized it very well on his blog: « No one in Europe is satisfied with the status quo, except the Germans, who are the only people capable of changing it ». Sunday’s elections, unfortunately, can hardly change this structural problem. In this context, will the “reorientation” of the EU Francois Hollande already demanded in his first post-election speech mean a slow unravelling of the integration formula struck in the 1980s-1990s?

But, wait, you should ask: what about the economy? Shouldn’t we be debating about austerity against relaunch, quantitative easing and the like? The problem is that this is not 2012 anymore. Even if Germany would accept a modicum of quantitative easing, for example, or consent to work on curbing its trade surplus, will +0,5 points of gdp be the panacea to everything, the return of trust, the turn of the tide? I doubt it. As one can read here, the perception of things (like for example the idea that Germany would have an undue trade surplus with other EU members) seems to be more important than the fact itself. Crisis fatigue might already have settled so deep that we are now into dangerous, deep political waters. The treatment will have to be political as well, and thus in part symbolic.

As a historian, fresh out of writing a textbook on the history of European Integration, it is hard to find a historical analogy that would somehow match with what we see today. If I had to pick, I would pick the winter 1968-1969. That would give us the combination of political paralysis (Charles de Gaulle’s weakness in France, institutional and political block in his dealings with EEC member-states, especially Germany) and looming economic problems. And, like today, France, Germany and Great-Britain as the main stage of the play.

Edit: well look at that. David Cameron and Victor Orban do not support Juncker, but Katainen announces that he “personally” supports him. Decision will be taken in the Council, at some point in June-July. Merkel already reminded everybody that the member-states chose the Chairman of the Commission. Dont acte
Edit Edit: Well well. Juncker just became the candidate of the Parliament, and seems one step closer to the Presidency of the Commission.

And my good colleague Niko Hataka spills the beans as to the True Finns’ MEPs’ situation in the new Parliament.

And a last one: an electoral analysis of the European elections.

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