Ingrid Shikova: The EU's self-preservation instinct was triggered
The configuration in the Parliament is transitioning from a duo to a trio or even a quartetNadia Ilieva
It was made clear that the European citizens cannot be won over with messages calling for exiting or destroying the EU, says Ingrid Shikova, Professor in EU Policies, in an interview to Europost.
Prof. Shikova, the European citizens' votes have engineered a rather fragmented new European Parliament (EP). How do you interpret this development - as the fruit of democracy or the result of the voters' lack of a clear vision for Europe?
Normally, the EP elections are considered dull. They are characterised by an absence of high emotions between parties, a relatively weak turnout, a dismissive attitude from voters, and largely disinterested media. The result is that not many go to the polling stations. If we use a musical term to describe the situation, the tempo so far had been andante sostenuto - calmly restrained. But this time the stakes were different. United Europe - to be or not to be? What will the future of the EU hold post-Brexit? Consequently, the election campaigns in Member States were more active, the emotions - closer to the surface, and the tempo - more fast-paced. Perhaps the most apt musical term would be allegro ma non troppo - “fast, but not too much”.
The previous EP elections have traditionally featured a landscape of two parties with enough votes to form a majority. The right-wing European People's Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats won a combined 53% of the votes in 2014. And so the coalition of those two pro-European parties made the important decisions, while their representatives held the higher-up positions in the EU institutions. But at these past elections the situation changed, as the two main Parliament groups cannot create a majority on their own. The end to their hegemony was caused by various reasons, but they will certainly be supported in creating a majority by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe which, thanks to the French President Emmanuel Macron's party, now represents the third-largest Parliament group. This will allow for a pro-European alliance to be formed in order to counter the anti-European forces in the EP. The Greens also had a surprisingly good showing, especially in Germany. They too are among the pro-European parties.
We should point out something else here. There are some facts and specific characteristics related to the operation of the EP that are not explained sufficiently to the general public. For example, so far no party has held a majority of the seats on its own; coalitions have always been crucial. This may be difficult for citizens to grasp, but it must be made clear that more often than not left-wing and right-wing parties vote on the same side in the EP, and that the term of the Parliament's presidency is divided between the two parties with most MEPs.
What are the main takeaways from the election results?
There are three main conclusions that I would make. First, the new EP, albeit fragmented, has a predominantly pro-European majority. Second, European citizens recognised the importance of the European project and defended it. Third, the higher turnout is an indication of the expectations of and criticism towards the EU, to which it now has to respond. The higher turnout strengthens and solidifies the legitimacy of the EP. The bloc's self-preservation instinct manifested itself during these elections.
Given the election results, what kind of reshuffle do you expect to see in the camp of populist and far-right parties, of which there is such a wide variety that it would be a challenge for them to reach a consensus? Will there be any more surprises in the status-quo groups?
I already mentioned the pro-European configuration - in the new situation the familiar duo, which dominated for years, will probably be transformed into a trio, or perhaps even a quartet that will include the Greens. We already observed the populists, extremists and nationalists step up their efforts to better position themselves in the EP elections. Steve Bannon, former White House strategist for US President Donald Trump, set up a Brussels-based organisation called The Movement to promote populist parties. The leader of the French nationalists, Marine Le Pen, toured Member States to drum up support for the far-right in the elections. These political organisations softened their rhetoric on the EU and directed it towards the idea of reforming the bloc instead of dismantling it or leaving either the EU or the Eurozone. In other words, they came to grips with the fact that the European citizens cannot be won over with messages and slogans calling for exiting or destroying the European project. Thankfully, the anticipated triumph of these political forces in the elections did not come to fruition.
There are too many differences and disagreements among the parties that can be put in the “populist, extremist, nationalist” category for them to be united in a single parliamentary group. They are not on the same page even on key topics such as limiting immigration. This fragmentation will make it challenging for all the parties in this category to come together in one EP group. With that said, the situation should not be downplayed and these parties' influence should not be underestimated. I do not expect surprises, but I would like to stress the need for us to stay vigilant and not get complacent.
But there is something positive - I think that the mobilisation of the populist parties prompted, in turn, pro-European voters to be more active.
I should also point out something very important for the groups in the new EP. Let us not forget that absurd elections were held in a country that is on its way to exiting the EU. The new ratio of the political groups in the Parliament will not be finalised until the Brexit saga is over. Once the British MEPs leave, the picture will change to a certain extent - some political groups will benefit from it and others will lose ground.
If the improved results of the Greens can be attributed to concern over climate change, how do you explain the rise of ALDE? It cannot be just the boost provided by Macron's party.
The Greens managed to win the hearts of the young people. Their success is mostly connected to efforts to combat climate change and protect the environment in Europe and around the world. Some 34% of German voters between the age of 18 and 24 voted for candidates nominated by the Greens. The same can be assumed for their parents. To put things in perspective, only 11% of voters in that age bracket supported the Christian Democratic Union and another 8% - the Socialists. This is one of the central ideas that galvanises the public in EU Member States and that will be high on the agenda of the European institutions.
The Liberals' political family also grew (their EP group will likely have a new name). In large part this is owing to Macron's party, but other countries also contributed - Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. The support for the Liberals and the Greens indicates that there are new expectations that the EP should take into account and respond.
Will ALDE play the role of a kingmaker in the next Parliament and what will it mean in terms of policies?
If we resort to simple arithmetic and look at the magic number 376, i.e. the parliamentary majority, then the European People's Party, Socialists, Democrats and the Greens may have a sufficient number of MEPs to constitute majority without the Liberals. However, it remains to be seen how the Greens will behave and under what conditions will they join the other pro-European parliamentary groups. But these are only theoretical and mathematical calculations as the group of ALDE would hardly remain outside them. In this sense, its role will be crucial, including in the distribution of top positions in the European institutions.
As regards the future functioning of the Parliament, I think that the majority will be very flexible. Probably there will be incidents when the four groups will vote unanimously, but there also may be instances when the majority will be formed to uphold a certain issue. Certainly, it is much more difficult to take a decision when more participants are involved, but this offers a possibility for more debates and a variety of viewpoints. I believe that these four political groups will agree on the priorities on which they will work together in the future and which are so important to the citizens of Europe. So they will save up energy wasted otherwise in redundant and counterproductive debates.
What will be the impact of the results, including a smaller number of seats for EPP, on the countries of Eastern Europe, such as, for instance, Bulgaria, which counted on the hitherto prevalence of the group?
After all, despite the fewer number of seats in the EP, the European People's Party still holds the leading position. Of course, this is a bitter victory. However, it is evident that a majority cannot be formed without EPP. It means that in the future this political family will still boast considerable influence.
The EU election has shaken many governments and now the impact is to be felt at the national level. To what degree may the EU vote be seen as a catalyser of internal changes?
It is a common belief that the EU vote is something of second-rate importance, that it is not so crucial. The underestimation of the EP role, which actually increased considerably after the Lisbon Treaty came into force, underlies a certain disparagement of the EU election. We should also add the approach to the election campaign practiced by the national parties. Usually the campaign is running within the national context. It depends on the political situation in a certain country and does not contribute to raising voters' awareness on the European issues. More often than not, the EU elections are used as a litmus test for the national status of the political parties. These elections to a great extent are “disguised” national elections. And the national politics remain the dominating factor in them. Actually, the election race can be defined as a hybrid move - it is implemented on the national basis but is influenced by both the discussions and events within the EU. The results of the EU elections in Germany are the most illustrative example to that. We don't know yet what will be the consequences for the German government. If snap election is in store, it would mean a delay in taking important decisions at the European level - for example, the decisions on the multiannual financial framework after 2020. The bidirectional influence is a fact - the European vote precipitates internal changes, but the internal changes also affect the European development.
A fierce battle is waged behind the scenes for the leading posts at the EU institutions. It is no secret that it involves bargaining. Isn't there any other, democratic and more transparent way to conduct this election?
After the Lisbon Treaty came into effect, the European political parties can name their leading candidates for the president of the European Commission with a view to encouraging the voters to be more active and to boost their awareness that they have their say in the election of a person who will head one of the most important European institutions. This feedback with the voters in 2014 allowed to fully follow the Spitzenkandidat idea, and Jean-Claude Juncker was elected president of the EU Commission, albeit with some objections. The concept, however, comes under attacks.
The phrasing in the EU Treaty on the issue is too blurred - it does not quote Spitzenkandidat but only says that it is done “with a view to the elections to the European Parliament”, which does not oblige them by all means to choose for the president of the EU Commission the candidate offered by the winning party. And currently the Spitzenkandidat topic stirs many controversies. The realisation of the prognosis that the majority in the EU Parliament will be formed by a trio will make the decision on this matter more complicated. Following the EC traditions, the MEPs will seek political and geographical balance. In the context of gender equality and women's participation in governance, I am sure of one thing - at least one of the top posts will be held by a woman.
However, the Spitzenkandidat concept has its champions. Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar, for instance, backs the practice of the leading candidates and proposes to make it permanent not only for the post of the president of the European Commission but also for the rest of the top positions. In my opinion, it would be hard to vote for and to directly elect those who hold top offices in the European institutions. President Macron is right when he says that only the best ought to be elected. But it is common knowledge that the parties not always nominate the best and the most suitable candidates. Suspense is being built up.
Right after the elections, somebody asked me: “What will follow now?” My answer was: day-to-day hard work towards European unity and the prosperity of the European citizens. The voters gave a chance to a united Europe. This obliges us to overcome party squabbles and to elect the people who will not only be real leaders but will also inspire us to build the common future of our continent.
Prof. Ingrid Shikova is founder of the European Studies Department at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. She has devoted her entire professional career to European integration. Prof. Shikova has been Director of the Centre for European Studies as well as Director of the Information Centre of the Delegation of the European Commission and adviser to the European Commission Representation. She is member of the Academic Council of the International Centre for European Training in Nice. Prof. Shikova was decorated for her contribution to the development of European studies in Bulgaria with the highest distinction of the University - honorary sign with a blue ribbon. At present she is Head of “Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence” at the European Studies Department of the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.