Friday, November 8, 2013

Whose bubble?

"Go anywhere inside the Brussels bubble now, and you will find that election fever has broken out; no dinner table chat is complete without speculation about the 2014 elections and the name game- who succeeds Barroso? Who gets the Ashton job? Will the European Socialists or the European People’s Party get most seats?"

Let's take this quote from a recent article by EU insider Julian Priestley at face value. It makes some sense: though the EU Parliament in particular, and the various EU apparatuses writ large hardly constitute a federal government comparable to the US one, this election, alongside banking unification and the resolving euro crisis,  will mark another big step in that direction. And let's recall that the EU, adding its 28th member state this January, is considerably bigger than the US, and poised for more growth. So all that ferment and "fever" inside the "Brussels bubble" makes some sense.

But how much traction has it gained, or will it gain, on this side of the Atlantic? 'EU Parliament election fever' sounds like a late-night TV one-liner--in contrast to the detailed, perceptive coverage the US Congress receives in European news outlets. Will the seriousness of Europe's condition--the challenges of euroscepticism and persistent recession, inadequate integration and resurgent protectionism--win the attention of Europe's 'Atlantic partner' after all? This question should preoccupy not just Brussels insiders but their Capital Beltway counterparts, for whom American global narcissism is an increasingly  limited option. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Off and Running

Anyone who doubts that the EU Parliamentary elections are in full swing (voting happens at the end of May) need only consult this interview with Martin Schulz in today's Monde to witness the campaign in all its feckless generality. Schulz is currently President of the Parliament, formerly delegation leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the Parliament, and aspirant to replace José Manuel Barroso as EU Commission President--the big job. Schulz will try to be the face of the center-left at the head of a European-wide slate, and as such bears the hopes of those 'liberals' (in the American sense) for whom the far-left parties of the GUE would threaten too much change.

Schulz claims to represent a 'socialist Europe,' in opposition to the liberal or free-market version that currently prevails, but what does that mean? Advancing plans for the banking union is at the top of his list. Striking a balance between budgetary austerity and growth is another. While he names a series of issues--among them tax evasion, control of financial markets, climate change--he would like to see addressed at the EU level, he stays far away from essential socialist matters such as inequality, income redistribution, and the social safety net, or hot-button social questions such as migration and immigration. Schulz wants the centrist voters to know that his administration would be a 'safe' one.

So what if anything of interest does Schulz offer? What really engages this career MEP (he's been in the Parliament since 1994) is a structural shift that would make the Commission and its President more a creature of the Parliament itself, and less of the Council or heads of state. And this is no small thing. The Europe-wide contest he hopes to win would take the form of a parliamentary majority, and his appointment, unlike Barroso's or other Commission Presidents, would be like a Prime Minister's, a function of that majority. Indeed, while no one imagines that the S & D bloc will finish first in next spring's election, Schulz is more than open to the possibility that a center-left coalition involving Greens and centrist liberals--but not left radicals--would bring him to power. This simple strategy, second nature in a parliamentary system, would mark a subtle but seismic advance in the accountability of the Commission, and the Parliament, to a 'people of Europe' and not just to the 28 constituent states. In power, Schulz would very likely be the consensus-driven centrist he presents himself as today, but he would also be the standard-bearer of a more progressive alliance that just possibly would advance the cause of a less market-driven--though hardly socialist--Europe. Not a thrilling prospect, but one worth watching.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Open Season

I stopped posting about European politics in this space after the Italian electoral results shook out last March, in part because the failure of the Left, of Vendola's SEL, of anything like a republican consensus, was so dispiriting. I have to confess, I greatly under-appreciated Enrico Letta, the compromise choice for Premier after Luigi Bersani fell on his sword, and I expected his government to crumble within a few months. But here he is, still holding onto a tenuous majority, pronouncing with characteristic circumspection and intelligence on the dangers confronting Europe in next May's EU Parliamentary elections. So I'll take him at face value, and consider the interview he gave today as the opening round in what I intend to be a thorough set of notes as that complex, multiform, and quite fascinating electoral cycle unfolds.

Letta is concerned, and so am I, that anti-European nationalists could win 25% of the vote in a number of important countries, including the UKIP in the UK, the FN in France, and yes, the MVS in his own. He shrewdly observed that the concerted continent-wide euro-skeptic campaign shaping up--Marine LePen's visit to Gert Wilders in the Netherlands a few weeks ago sent a strong signal--would mark a major step in the europeanization of what has often been seen as an assortment of national elections for the EU Parliament: a severe irony, as he points out, that hostility to the Union would become its rallying cry. 

But it remains true that the strongest Europeanist declarations by people like Letta who hold national office risk being read as oblique interventions in their own national politics, and Letta's wide-ranging interview is no diffferent. In calling for a strengthened 'United States of Europe' with a new euro-zone economic commissioner, Letta is also beckoning to Italian progressives who voted for Grillo's MVS last February to return to his own PD fold--his only real hope to achieve a stable majority. So yes, one big, fascinating election campaign for Europe's huge parliament is starting to engage, and already the 28 flavors of European political life are starting to advertise themselves. Tasty!