Sharing the Power in Brussels

Article published on July 5, 2004
community published
Article published on July 5, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Europeans have voted "no" to the moderate political elite and have opened the door to sceptics and populists. So, is this the dawn of new "European" politics?

Brussels post-June 13th is all aflutter. A poor turn-out in elections across the new and old Member States has called into question the legitimacy of the EU's only directly elected body, and European politicians across the continent are waking up to the bitter truth that they owe their success (or failure) to a widespread protest vote on the performance of Member States’ Governments. The people have spoken, and the enlarged European Parliament now has more Eurosceptic MEPs then ever before. How will the Parliament reconnect with its electors? How will it use its powers as the people's representative in Europe?

Bipartisanship under attack

The rise in Eurosceptic parties of all kinds, from anti-Europeans such as UKIP to Czech Eurorealists and the Swedish June List reveals a long-term failure of bipartisan power sharing and a distrust of the moderate political elite whose transnational parties have dominated European politics for the past 25 years. The largest party, which has a potentially increased membership (from 200 to 270 seats), the centre-right EPP, stands accused from within its own ranks of being a false coalition which has seen federalists sit shoulder to shoulder with largely Eurosceptic parties only to split frequently on key votes. With the defection of Francois Bayrou's UDF to a newly formed European Democratic Party, Hans Gert Pöttering's group could lose its federalists and be left with whinging Eurosceptics. All eyes are now on the pro-European Democratic Party which, if sitting with Romano Prodi's pro-European Olive Tree Coalition and the Liberal ELDR in a centrist coalition, would number about 100 members and could upset the balance of power in the European Parliament.

It was rumoured that the two major parties would strike a deal giving them a huge majority in the new Parliament. The Socialists (with an estimated 198 seats) have rejected this. Nevertheless, the corridors are awash with whispers of a PES/EPP deal over the Parliament's Presidency which would see Terry Wynn (PES, UK) fill the office in the first half of the Parliamentary Term, with Hans Gert Pöttering (EPP, DE) taking on the role for the second. Smaller parties are crying foul. They favour the symbolic clout of the former French Premier Michel Rocard or the maverick Polish ex-Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek (ELDR) to a two-party stitch-up.

New Political Parties - a re-emergence of old problems?

Whatever happens, all groups, new and old face the same difficulty: the need to forge partnerships on a coherent platform amid an increasingly fractured and contested arena. Without this, the claim to transcend national debates will ring as hollow as ever, whilst they are unlikely to gain credibility with the European public. Direct engagement with the person on the street has to be the goal, and this can only be done through each group setting out a distinctive vision of what Europe should be. So far the Eurosceptics are winning this battle with easily digestible sound bites appealing to single nationalities. But can they form a blocking minority in the European Parliament? A brief survey of the field suggests that we are unlikely to see such Euro-dissenters hang together consistently. Some have a questioning scepticism, whilst others such as UKIP have a purely anti-European agenda, seek a complete withdrawal from the EU and in their own words are set on "wrecking" the European Parliament. Arguing a nationalist anti-European line, it is unlikely that the UK Independence Party (with 12 out of a total of 78 UK seats) will always see eye-to-eye on internal market issues with the Czech ODS, who style themselves as "Eurorealists" and are fighting the erosion of the country's voting power in the Constitution. Likewise, it is difficult to see these "little Englanders" sitting shoulder to shoulder with Swedish June list - who wish to define the end-limits of Euro-centralism but do not oppose the project in itself. And then there are the 7 Polish MEPs belonging to Samoobrona (or "self defence" party). Representing aggrieved agriculturists and labourers, they are a party of disillusionment, just as opposed to the poor deal Poland has got from the EU on the CAP as to the corruption they see inherent in their domestic political elite. Add to these Paul Van Buitenen and Hans-Peter Martin, lone rangers who are fighting on an anti-corruption, pro-transparency ticket and a picture forms of a growing populist movement, which whilst deeply critical of institutional elitism, is not necessarily anti-European.

The New Agenda

With such a mixed political pedigree, the politics of the European Parliament is set to get more adversarial in the next 5 years. Key issues regarding the future of Europe, the CAP, public procurement, corruption, and institutional affairs are sure to be on the agenda of a more self-reflexive Parliament, whose MEPs are all-too-aware of scrutiny – i.e. the need to justify their existence. As reform of MEPs expenses and demands for "equal pay for equal work" once again come up for debate, we can expect some examination of the role of the MEP - from hardworking committee-goers to those lame ducks who are bent on "wrecking" the system through absenteeism and obstruction, whilst claiming their expenses along the way. This is to be welcomed as it could provoke healthy debate, a raised profile and perhaps greater politicisation at the European level.

We may see the most interesting developments in Parliament's relationship with the other institutions. With the possibility of increased legislative powers afforded by the new Constitution (in asylum, border controls, fisheries, agriculture, and budgetary matters) will Parliament's political groups grow in confidence to challenge the Council in deciding matters such as the composition of the Commission? In naming Chris Patten as his choice of Commissioner, Hans Gert Pöttering angered certain Heads of State, raising the stakes and asserting his right as the leader of the largest political group to see a Commission President come from his political family. Yet in the long term, only a politicised Parliament with popular engagement will be able to carry out this function effectively.

Given its primary role has been that of a technical legislator who must form an effective counterweight to the Member States, it remains unclear whether an ideologically-split Parliament can continue to present a strong negotiating role vis-à-vis the Council. Nevertheless dissonant voices may mean the Parliament now gets more airtime in the Member States. Prodi said recently that "debate is the spice of democracy". Let's hope that identifiable transnational parties can emerge which can begin to contest for control of the Commission, and more importantly, speak legitimately for those who elect them.