Official campaigning for the European Parliamentary elections started on Monday, 13 May 2019 for elections throughout the European Union (including the UK) to take place on 23 to 26 May 2019. These elections happen every five years for a European Parliament that has become increasingly significant in determining the direction of the European Union. The unusual dynamics in this particular election cycle include the Brexit turmoil, the rising strength and signs of unity among the anti-European populist parties of the extreme right, and the possibility that the two main political alignments that have dominated the EU through their strength in the European Parliament might have become so weakened that they will no longer be the major players. That is why this particular election cycle is more important than ever in saving the day for progressivism and European-wide collaboration for democratic values and fundamental human rights. And the key for that happens to be the potential for the elections to produce a very different, centrally-driven alignment of political interests, something that fits very well with the strategy being pursued by President Emmanuel Macron.
Reinvigorating the Destiny of Europe in France
That is to say, the stakes are high for none other than the “boy wonder” from France, Emmanuel Macron, whose vision for collaboration from the center started with optimism when he was elected President of France in 2017 but who has encountered a relatively unreceptive populace in France since then. True, his La République en Marche (LREM) continues to hold sway over the legislative processes there, but the protests associated with the Gilets Jaunes (the Yellow Jackets worn by citizens critical of Macron’s policies in weekly protests throughout France since November) and the political sniping from both extremes of left and right are indicative of the big drop in his popular support. For the French round of European Parliamentary elections, which will occur on 26 May, the possibility is that the LREM list of candidates will garner a mere 22 or 23 per cent of the vote – quite a dramatic plunge from its legislative successes in 2017.
Although neither the traditionally dominant Republicans on the right nor the traditionally dominant Socialists on the left are likely to do anywhere near as well as this, it is the list put forward by the extreme right under the Rassemblement National (RN) of Marine Le Pen that is projected to poll AHEAD of the LREM! So the phenomenon of extreme right populism is an issue of concern even in France – or perhaps one could argue, it is especially an issue of concern in France. The diversity of some 34 different lists in the French elections for the European Parliament does suggest that it isn’t just dissatisfaction from the extreme right that hobbles the appeal of the LREM, but one can see how this particular concern about the RN being the top vote getter has influenced the LREM strategy in these elections. And it is a strategic choice that could very well open up the potential for a centrally-driven new alignment at the EU level.
As one would expect, the LREM has chosen a platform for the European Parliamentary elections that has 79 propositions. It is an exhaustive list of propositions, covering obvious subjects like defense, energy, education, social and fiscal policies, all with a typically pro-European integrationist tone. Calling itself the “Projet Renaissance”, the platform also highlights nine priorities covering a variety of innovative proposals under headings that emphasize a revivalist European identity with notable protectionist overtones, like favoring “made in Europe” businesses. Some of these proposals are in fact quite innovative in their combination of progressivism with pragmatics, in such key areas as climate change and immigration (as described below). Thus, one could describe the platform as part of a strategy to promote a European style of populism to counteract the nationalist style of populism that is coming from the extreme right. It is a sort of European populism with healthy doses of progressivism and pragmatism.
On climate change, for example, there is clearly a strong commitment to elements of a Green New Deal but without its absolutism on things like ending all reliance on fossil fuels prior to 2050 or requiring linkages to guaranteed jobs for everyone as one phases out of fossil ruels. The proposals for setting stronger EU-level targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also setting up an EU-level Climate Fund to aid with transitions to renewable energy are both bold and pragmatic.
On immigration, which is especially sensitive to both Brexit and right-wing populist sentiments, the challenge is to mobilize enough support for social policies equalizing income and job opportunities among the member states to minimize the appeal of the free movement of people within the EU, while also working out a fairer redistribution of asylum seekers for those coming to Europe from the outside. Perhaps this latter could be done as a condition for continued participation in the Schengen agreement for internally open borders, along with targeted reimbursements for local integration initiatives. It does include, of course, a strengthening of resources for external border control. So pro-immigration critics of the proposals may see this as not going far enough, but it also includes an acceptance of the need for enlightened immigration and absorption strategies in each country.
This Macron strategy is the most obvious channel for the realization of an enlightened pro-European platform on the range of issues that are challenging the Western world generally. It offers a combination of progressive policies with pragmatic steps to implement them. And with its style of pro-European populism, it seems to be moving beyond the original Franco-German (Macron-Merkel) alliance of the past couple of years that has alienated so many of the smaller EU member states. The pragmatic progressivism of this strategy could even serve as a useful guide for how to effectively challenge a populist incumbent in the US, while it should also enable a broadened coalition to displace the negativism of right-wing populism in general.
On the EU Leadership Front
The European Union has an unusual combination of institutions and leaders – a European Council that brings the heads of state or government together, various European Councils of Ministers who also meet on subject matter issues, a European Commission that initiates EU-level policy proposals and a European Parliament that has a role in approving these policies. The significance of the elections for the European Parliament includes its role in choosing who will head the European Commission, its President.
While the nomination and approval of a candidate for President of the European Commission is controlled by the European Council, the European Parliament has over the years accumulated a greater say in the process. It has clearly become the practice to ensure that the chosen candidate for this position also has to garner a majority of MEPs to his (or her) side. The latest version of this selection process, known as the “Spithenkandidat” process, was adopted only in the most recent round involving the 2014 selection of Jean-Claude Juncker. All the major political parties (or groupings of like-minded national parties) in the European Parliament have to designate – as part of their campaign platforms and lists prior to the actual elections – who their lead candidate is for the position of President of the European Commission. (Note: Seating in the European Parliament is organized around these political groupings of like-minded MEPs even though they are elected at the national level and not at the EU level.)
The practice has been that the leader of the party with the largest bloc of MEPs has the first shot at designating who the European Council should officially nominate to the position. Thus, the right-of-center grouping with the largest bloc in the 2014 election was the European People’s Party, and its designated head, Jean-Claude Juncker was duly nominated. Of course, he also had to get a majority of MEPs, and this included the EPP aligning with other groupings, mostly to the right but also with acquiescence from the major center-left bloc of Socialist parties which had the second largest bloc of MEPs and others from the left, such as the Greens.
For the 2019 election, however, the speculation is widespread that this might be thrown out, even though the parties have all gone through the process of designating their candidate choices. Projections do show that the right-of-center European People’s Party (EPP) will still have the largest bloc of MEPs, and the assumption that the EPP will stand by its lead candidate, Manfred Weber. But the EPP is projected to have a significantly lower number of MEPs and may have difficulty mobilizing a majority of other MEPs for their candidate under the circumstances. In fact, both of the main political groupings in past European Parliaments, the EPP from the right and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) from the left are projected to lose seats. Take a look at the numbers for each political grouping from 2014 (totaling 751) and the projected numbers for 2019.
- The European People’s Party (right of center) down from 221 to 168
- The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats down from 191 to 147
- Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe up from 67 to 104 (with En Marche)
- Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group transformed into Salvini’s European Alliance of People and Nations (right-wing populists) from 48 up to 73
- European Conservatives and Reformists from 70 to 59
- The Greens and European Free Alliance from 50 to 54
- European United Left and Nordic Green Left from 52 to 50
- Brexit Party (Nigel Farage group) from 0 to 51
- New and unaffiliated parties from 51 to 47
Sources are: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/election-results-2014.html and https://www.politico.eu/2019-european-elections/.
The biggest gains are projected to be for the extreme right (add the Salvini and Farage groupings), and it is this phenomenon that is creating such anxiety among the traditional alignments of pro-European parties. Although these national populist parties have not fully succeeded in agreeing on a common alliance, some eleven of them did send representatives to a rally this past Saturday hosted by the Italian rabble-rouser Matteo Salvini in Milan. (This included the French RN leader Marine le Pen.) Missing were representatives from the right-wing parties governing Poland and Hungary, who do not share the pro-Russian bias of the West European populist parties. And there was a last-minute no-show from the representative of the Austrian Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, who has just resigned amidst a scandal involving pro-Russian bribery. Alarmingly, though, this cluster of extreme right-wing parties might come in with the third largest tally for the European Parliament next week, if one includes the Brexit Party in the group.
An additional complication is related to the strategy of President Emmanuel Macron and his Renaissance platform in France. Neither left nor right, Macron’s En Marche party (LREM) has cautiously aligned with the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), who have never had a very strong base in the European Parliament. Projections show that a combination of ALDE with LREM, however, could pick up supporters from other pro-EU groups to build a credible alternative to either the EPP or the S&D. This opens up the possibility of an ALDE-related candidacy to head the European Commission.
ALDE declined to designate one lead candidate for this position in its election strategy but rather presented a list of seven, including two with high visibility at the EU level – Guy Verhofstadt from the Netherlands who has the current position of President of the European Parliament and Margrete Vestager from Denmark who initiated a lot of anti-trust action as the EU Commissioner responsible for competition policy. Macron’s strategy has been to align with ALDE but also work on expanding this emerging center-driven alignment.
One can hope that the center-driven alignment might be a genuine alternative to an EPP-dominated coalition that has had so many setbacks and is associated with presiding over the EU’s response to the Brexit impasse in the UK. The appeal of a new center-driven alignment is that it could deliver a “renewal” of Europe that counters the populist parties – more democratic and citizen-friendly (to avoid another Brexit) while also offering a form of pragmatic progressivism on the prominent issues of today.
The European Parliamentary elections are being held from 23 to 26 May, and the European Council is set to meet just two days after that for a preliminary post-election assessment of the situation. It may, however, take several months to come up with a President for the Commission – and, of course, a full alignment of Commissioners once that position is agreed. Much like the 2020 Presidential election in the US, it has the potential to be quite a free-for-all.
In conclusion, the potential for a new alignment that focuses on pragmatic solutions to the issues that have diverted voters away from traditional parties and to extremist right-wing populists (and also to some extent the left-wing extremists) is a promising avenue for countering the populism in Europe. It should serve as a example for the US, too. The challenge in the US is to mobilize a winning candidate against a populist incumbent, which is quite different from the situation in Europe. But there is still the very comparable preoccupation with how to come up with a way to absorb a growing populist movement that could disrupt democratic governance structures. And so what happens this year in the European Parliament will be an important bellwether for ways to contain and even counter the populist appeal, not only in the EU and future national-level elections in Europe but also the 2020 Presidential elections in the US.