Power and the European Parliament

One of the more particular aspects of European elections is the rather extended process that it involves: voting over 4 days, results taking several more days after that, then a long process of forming groups, all as a prelude to the Commission election process.

As a result, I’ve held off writing about it all because plenty of others were piling in and there seemed to be little else to say.

My first temptation is to write a piece that’s brewing inside me, about the vapidity of all the commentary that has emerged since Sunday about ‘what it all means’, ‘what we should learn’ and ‘how we should blame’. But my heart’s not really in it right now, so we’ll leave that to one side, with merely a note that whatever generosity of spirit I might have, it is dwindling fast.

Instead, I will consider the other most striking feature of the week, namely the dual power struggles that are taking place.

The first is the one that most British readers will know about, the one that involves all the critical MEPs newly elected and their efforts to form new groups.

I wrote about this back in November and I’m happy to say that it’s all much as I thought it would be. Three main poles for groups to form around: the FN-PVV far-right, the UKIP eurosceptics, and the Conservatives. As I write (early on Thursday) the first of these are claiming to be just short of the threshold (25 MEPs from at least 7 member states), while Nigel Farage is chatting with Beppe Grillo about his big group of M5S MEPs. The Tories have been rather quiet so far, possibly because there are not really enough parties to go around all three groups (see this very useful piece from Open Europe).

These groups matter, because they bring institutional funding, plus speaking time and opportunities to chair and be rapporteur in committee. Even if some parties have no intention of being active members in the parliament, the benefits are strong enough to make this a vital period for them.

But there’s also a second power struggle going on, over the Commission presidency.

In this the EP has played a blinder, lining up behind Juncker (as Spitzenkandidat of the EPP, the largest grouping) with alacrity (if also some grumbling), leaving the informal European Council on Tuesday having to play for time.

Assuming that the EPP-S&D-ALDE consensus can hold on Juncker (the Greens have been a bit quiet) then it seems very hard to see member states not complying, even if this means the exacting of a heavy price from the EP when it comes to replacements for the European Council President and the EU Foreign Minister. While there has been much to-and-fro about what the treaties say, it is clear that the EP can block any non-Spitzenkandidat, so the initiative is with them in practice.

Both struggles are very interesting, not least because they have been treated somewhat separately.  The major exception to this has been David Cameron, who justified his opposition to Juncker by noting that the EP had just elected more sceptics than ever before, so this was not the time to have ‘more Europe’ but connecting Parliament and Commission in this way.

At one level, that totally true, but at another, it neglects that Juncker can currently command a majority of votes in the EP (for his appointment, if not for much more) and that sceptics are still a minority.

This all brings us back to one of the older themes of this blog, namely the importance of perceptions.

The fundamental issue is one of seeing the EU as only having two kinds of people: pros and antis.

When one takes on such a Manichean worldview, then it becomes almost impossible to find a constructive way out of the Union’s current malaise: it’s either forwards or backwards, as if the thing were on rails.

The Parliament this week has provided just such a situation. The sceptics are too preoccupied with building groups to engage with anything else, while the centrist majority turn up their noses and talk of securing Parliament’s right to elect the Commission presidency. In short, there’s not really any interaction between the different elements. And as long as that continues, the Parliament (and the EU with it) will continue to suffer.