Friday, May 16, 2014

The EU's Great Debate

Was it grand? Here for the first time, all 5 major party candidates to be the next Commission president--Europe's 'real' president--on the same stage, debating issues in 1-minute sound bites on a set drawn straight from late-night entertainment TV. Speaking three languages--English, French, and Greek--and representing the 'broad spectrum' of parties (with the glaring exception of the eurosceptic far right, which has no unified candidacy), these 5 proponents of a federal, democratic European Union did their cause a real service just by being there and enacting this ritual of presidential democracy.

But was there anything to say? The fact is, the center-right PPE, the center-left S & D, and the centrist liberal ALDE--out of which a parliamentary majority will almost certainly emerge--are pressed to identify significant points of difference. All want to relax the worst pressures of austerity to preserve some form of social safety net, yet all are interested in traditional mechanisms of growth, and the business-friendly policies that it calls for. Do they differ on particulars, such as a desired rate of inflation or a euro-bond mechanism or EU-wide labor protections? The 1-minute format, and their own bland perspectives, kept Mssrs. Juncker, Schulz, and Verhofstadt far from any such details.

Green candidate Ska Keller distinguished herself--not only because she is female, a full generation younger than the 3 party chiefs, and wore a fetching green blazer, but because she speaks with enthusiasm about changing the EU culture, indeed, bringing its politics "into the streets," as she said on one occasion. Her remarks in support of the poor and needy were not so different from Schulz's, but her tone of idealistic possibility was in striking contrast to his ironic, sometimes caustic voice of experience. Did Alexis Tsipras of the far-left GUE articulate a quite different critique of the financial and business-oriented structures of the Union? Probably, but only Greek speakers can know--there was no mechanism for interpretation into other languages, and Mr. Tsipras doesn't speak the major languages well enough to debate in them. Surely some means could have solved this problem, which otherwise suggests that the EU will soon be as monolingual as its (mostly francophone) critics complain.

In its forms the debate was nonetheless largely a success: by the standard of American presidential politics, at least, the EU is approaching a credible and important stage of direct, personalized, presidential authority (assuming the Council indeed appoints the 'winner' as President, an event which should be as much a formality as our Electoral College, but isn't yet established as such). But two great absences haunt this attempt at normalization. First, the large eurosceptic currents, which logically have no real place in the election but act as a huge drag on its authenticity. And more importantly, the projected abstention rates--perhaps 60%--which suggest that the EU, with its burgeoning powers and 5 rather earnest, talented and plausible presidential candidates, still remains marginal for most of its citizens.

The debate and the campaigns, if followed, would be a palliative of sorts to these problems. If ignored, the EU goes forward, headless, at its peril.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Italian Connection

Italy is not often grouped among Europe's Great Powers. But with 73 seats in the EP--the same as the UK, just one less than France--Italy does weigh in fairly heavily in that forum. For that reason it was no surprise to see Alexis Tsipras in Rome yesterday, fresh from his triumphant march to the Bastille on Saturday, collecting his endorsement from the SEL (Left Ecology Freedom) Party and its luminaries, Barbara Spinelli and Nichi Vendola. On the other hand, current polls suggest that SEL and its Left allies won't make it over the bar to win any  seats in the new EP.

But that's not the crux of the story in Italy, where the third largest bloc (18 seats, according to the same polls) may belong to Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle. Since that party has never appeared in the EP, no one quite knows how they will affiliate. Marine Le Pen was in Italy after her party's blow-out in the Municipals, but her Italian compagni della strada--the Northern League and the Fratelli Italiani, both suspiciously neo-fascist, in the literal sense--are completely unpalatable to Grillo and his grillini, who for the most part have left-libertarian tendencies. Joining the conventional parties of the center makes even less sense  for this anti-establishment crowd.

So will they join Tsipras and the GUE? Domestically they spurned Vendola's overtures when it seemed possible to form a Left coalition government with Democrats, Sel and the MCS. But that was then, and part of a domestic realignment. On the European front Grillo's legions might find themselves most at home on the left aisle, and that would increase the weight of Tsipras and the Other Europe cause by quite a lot. Vedremmo.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A French Twist

For more than 60 years now European statesmen have dreamed of a Europe that could see its larger interests as a whole, rather than a collection of local, parochial problems played out on a larger and slightly distant stage. With the creation of the Euro and de facto the financial elements of such a broader polity, the problem of knitting together a more integrated European-wide system of governance has loomed larger. Especially in the wake of the ongoing economic crisis and the pivotal role of the ECB, one might hope that some such larger interest wold be the dominant key of this year's European Parliamentary elections.

But alas, leaders respond to their voters, EU voters organize by national interest, and once again the larger electorate fragments into an aggregate of smaller ones. How this will play out in France--a nation both essential to Europe for its size and prestige and particularly wracked with intractable economic woes--is displayed with characteristic finesse here in a recent analysis by Le Monde's Francoise Fressoz.

Briefly summarized, Francois Hollande's Socialist government, wildly unpopular with voters after 2 years of economic failures, has decided to forget its promises to Brussels that it would contain its budget deficits, and will instead distribute tax breaks on all sides in the hope of provoking that elusive expansion that would make everything right. Cue the EU elections, close-up on Martin Schulz, another tepid 'Socialist' whose program proclaims 'A Different Europe,' one more oriented to social solidarity. So can the French Socialists use his campaign to change the conversation, declaring their enthusiasm for his campaign's sub-text that fiscal discipline isn't so important after all? No one can exactly say so, but that's the highly interesting hint that Fressoz offers from her insider's vantage point. Listen closely as the EU election draws near.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Same Combat?

Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker 'confronted' each other in a broadcast debate last night (see video here), but it isn't clear they contested much of anything. "More a polite conversation than a boxing match," was the verdict of Le Monde's Philippe Ricard. Ostensibly representing Left (Schulz's S&D social democrats) and Right (Juncker's PPE center-right), what the two veteran European politicians really embodied were the limitations of real choice and the pervasive inertia that afflicts the EU in its long march toward a real democratic polity.

Speaking in French, both tried to walk a fine line between pro-business 'reforms' and the need to support intractable numbers of the poor and unemployed. "Solidity and solidarity" was M. Juncker's mantra; "discipline and growth," M. Schulz's. When called upon to say what distinguishes one candidate's program from the other's, both were at a loss, and merely complimented each other on their good taste in finding so much common ground. Perhaps the most interesting remark of the evening was Schulz's observation that the real difference might lie, not between the two candidates, but between Juncker and his actual party. The unflappable Juncker seemed slightly discomposed, but only for a moment.

That exchange notwithstanding, the real debate that Europe needs, and will have, will not happen between these two centrist front-runners. Later in the process--but not till mid-May, alas--the other 3 major candidates will be invited to join the discussion (though the Eurosceptics, lacking a unified candidacy, will remain offstage, if hardly silent). For now, is seems a little sad that the Presidency of the Commission will most likely fall to one or the other of these men, both competent, experienced, assured in their verities, but neither offering any spark of change, of vision, of boldness to a Europe mired in despair.

Monday, April 7, 2014

EU Elections: Why Should We Care?


Here are a few reasons:

1) With 200 or so political parties from 28 nations vying for seats that will eventually group into 6 or so EU Parliamentary super-parties ... these elections are a political junkie's dream come true.

2) Given that the EU is the world's largest--and wealthiest--body politic, there's a lot at stake.

3) Increasingly the affairs of Europe's 28 states and 18 Euro-zone members are regulated in Brussels (or Frankfurt or Strasbourg or Luxembourg--i.e. by the EU in some form). The Parliamentary elections are the only gasp of fully democratic process governing this powerful machinery.

4) As in the US, politics in major European democracies are somewhat stalemated in the face-off of right and left, and paralyzed by the ongoing economic stagnation. Aggregating this problem at the 28-state level doesn't automatically produce a solution, but may offer a more effective scale for resolving issues. For example, would questions of minimum wage and unemployment insurance work better if federalized across the whole EU than in nations struggling each with its own fiscal pressures?

5) As the new Parliament organizes itself, cracks and affiliations between points-of-view that are somewhat idiosyncratic in one country make assume a clearer shape. For example: if a working majority takes shape among Schulz's social dems, Tsipras's far-left, and the greens, this could encourage related parties in a country like France to work more effectively together--despite the fact that the respective party leaders all hate each other.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

EU Party Time

I've been derelict, but the EU election season is advancing faster at least than the spring here in New England. I want to use this post to place a benchmark for where things stand, now that the major candidates and alignments are mostly in place. Then the fun begins! For reference, I'll be depending quite a lot on the thorough polling done here by Pollwatch 2014, the site of an independent global communications firm. So here's where they stand:

1) With a tiny lead in prospective seats, theS&D (Social democrats, center-left) may land in 1st place, though far short of a governing majority. Their standard-bearer, Martin Schulz, is well known as current EP President--but being part of the Old Guard will not necessarily be an advantage. He gathers large blocs of seats through the French and Spanish Socialists, German Social Democrats, the Italian Democrats, British and Dutch Labor parties, and left formations in Poland and Romania. Like others in this niche, Schulz makes enough noise about a 'Social Europe' to interest Tsipris and the real Left, but must keep open a channel for eventual partnering with the Liberals of ALDE if he hopes to run the Commission.
2) Running neck-and-neck is the EPP (center-right) and its candidate, Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker, at 59 the most visibly Old Guardist of them all. What's more, Juncker may not want the Commission job, but be a stalking horse whose real objective is the Council presidency (a slower job that would accommodate his drinking habits, some say). Whatever. The EPP is used to running things, and many commentators refuse to admit the possibility they may pass the baton to the left--but their declining numbers are the clear effect of the climate of anti-EU malaise, which is unlikely to dissipate before May.
3) Hardly any mainstream sources have even noted it, but the Left coalition of Greek Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras is now running in 3rd place, with major delegations expected from the French and German Left Fronts, Left formations in Spain and Portugal, and the addition of a small bloc of Italian refugees from the increasingly right-leaning government of Matteo Renzi. Not to mention Greece, where Tsipras is the leading political figure. This prominence is so unprecedented for the UEG--long a voice in the wilderness--that it's hard to say how they will negotiate in May. Tsipras has refused to rule out a coalition Commission with Schulz, though one might expect strong conditions on behalf of labor, financial regulation, and the environment.
4) Reeling from big declines in Germany and the UK, the ALDE (free-market Liberals) may still control enough seats to be the swing delegation when it comes time to find a parliamentary majority. Olli Rehn, the most visible face of austerity politics in Europe, would have made a terrible front man, and the Liberals wisely put him aside in favor of Guy Verhofstadt, Belgium's prime minister for many years, a perennial candidate for the Commission, and author of the manifesto "The United States of Europe." Dominant nowhere but with venerable parties in most of Europe, the Liberals draw 8% of the overall vote, and use it to moderate their coalition partners, while representing the 'enlightened' business class.
5) Green parties have typically been drawn to the European political theater, for the good reason that environmental revolutions in one country are inherently futile, and the expedient one that Green parties get elbowed aside less rudely in that theater. Nonetheless, beyond their respectable showings in Germany and France, their representation is small, below 6%, and yet they too could be the key to a governing majority, certainly on the left, though they may leverage concessions  in exchange for making a PPE Commission possible.
6) Who's missing? Well, the true conservative blocs, including the eurosceptics, but more especially the flood of non-aligned but vehemently far right and eurosceptic members who are expected from France (the FN), Italy (Cinque Stelle), Germany (now that AfD has been given a lift by their Constitutional Court). And UKIP and the Dutch PVV, whose exact allegiance will involve a delicate negotiation after the election. In all, though, perhaps 20% of the new parliament will be on something of a kamikaze mission against the whole federal EU idea--which raises the bar considerably for the 5 recognizably distinct, largely Euro-federalist groups who will somehow have to find a majority voice within the remaining 80%. Perhaps there are some out of office Italian politicians who would be willing to consult.

Friday, February 21, 2014

On your mark ...

After months of preliminary maneuvers the electoral campaigns of Europe's many parties are taking shape in advance of the May elections. I begin with two contrary observations:

1) Most of the commentary I read is preoccupied with the threat of nationalistic, Eurosceptic, sometimes racist parties, whose presumed breakthrough in May will doom the European project and initiate a next era of European hostilities; and

2) the actual polling data, which suggests modest gains on the far left and right, and a small dip in the center-right, which now controls the EU Parliament but may lose its plurality to the moderate forces of the center-left. (By the Eu's byzantine procedures, though, the prize of the EU Commission presidency does not necessarily go to the winner, as in a true prime ministerial election, but devolves from an agreement by the 28 heads of state, who may or may not--at their peril!--respect the electoral outcomes.)

In any case, if the polls hold true the epochal crisis in which Europe finds itself may not be resolved, as some might hope or fear, by this election, which may merely kick that can a little further down the road. But it should be a provocative campaign season nonetheless, as I hope to demonstrate in subsequent posts.