Lost in confusion, Europe staggers towards elections

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they stand next to Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a High Level Conference on the Sahel at the European Commission in Brussels on 23 February 2018. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS / POOL]

Two weeks after Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech in Strasbourg triggered kick-off debates in the European Parliament about the 2019 elections, the party of Emmanuel Macron – one of the most closely watched politicians in Europe – officially launches its campaign outside France in Berlin on Saturday (29 September).

The move, in stark contrast to the current political confusion in Germany, paves the way for a new kind of European election campaigning. The LREM, created by the ambitious French president, is the first to start campaigning around Europe and has also been unambiguous about its aim and strategy.

The motto of La Republique en Marche’s Berlin gathering – Für ein progressives Europa gegen den Nationalismus [For a progressive Europe, against nationalism] – clearly draws the battle lines for the vote.

Macron's party neck-and-neck with far-right in 2019 EU election opinion poll

French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist LREM party is neck-and-neck with the far-right Rassemblement National, formerly the National Front, for the May 2019 European Parliament elections, according to poll results published on Thursday (13 September).

How the two main political blocs, the conservative EPP and the Social Democrats, will fare is anybody’s guess. But in view of the rising populist movements across Europe, one thing is sure: things will be different in the next five years, possibly longer.

“It seems to me we’ll be looking at a European Parliament of a very different character to anything we’ve been used to,” Giles Merritt, the founder of the Friends of Europe think tank, told EURACTIV.

“I suspect the next Parliament may have a substantial number of people from different populist parties, and in that case, I think we’re going to see a much more political, less technical parliament. And I am not entirely sure that’s a bad thing,” he added, explaining that this would “challenge the institutional apparat”.

While populists may rally around Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini and form a sizeable group in the new Parliament, drawing some defectors from the disunited EPP [do not discount surprises from Austria or Bavaria], Macron, the European Left and the ‘Progressives’ have all vowed to put pay to their ambitions.

Papadimoulis: A broad pro-EU alliance can block EPP right wing-far right entente

The increasing cooperation between the conservative right-wing and the far-right should be a wake-up-call for democrats, who should create a wide pro-EU alliance, from leftist Alexis Tsipras to centrist Emmanuel Macron, Syriza MEP Dimitris Papadimoulis told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

Germany plunged into uncertainty

But Macron’s En Marche will be marching with only one leg because there will be little support from the other European stalwart, Germany, whose traditional political setup is collapsing before our very eyes.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is rapidly losing her stature and sway, both at home and in Europe, as her ruling coalition teeters on the brink of collapse, threatened by internal divisions and the rise of the far-right AfD.

“With Merkel lacking so much of the authority that she had, I think Macron remains a key figure in talking about reform of the EU, leadership,” said Merritt.

“So I think it would be very premature to dismiss Macron’s importance. And I also think there are very sound political reasons for having the French playing a major role.”

But the really big question is whether the pro-European forces in Parliament will be able to form a sound majority, pick top officials and push for a reformist legislative agenda, or if they will be blocked by populists every step of the way.

Today’s voters worry about migration, refugees, digitalisation, the impact of globalisation on work, and expect political parties to come up with solutions for these issues. That has changed the ideological dividing lines as we have seen in France, the US, Hungary and others.

The new political paradigm could be described in terms of “open and European” versus “national, populist, protectionist”. And it has emerged at a time when Europe’s comfortable position as a global economic power is being challenged by China and India, with Washington putting additional spokes in the EU’s wheels.

The big question mark over Germany only fuels the uncertainty. The three governing parties there are so scared of new elections that they are holding on to power even though it doesn’t work.

There is no clear political line on domestic or European affairs to counter the line taken by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Minister-President of Bavaria Markus Söder [both CSU] – who are openly advocating a very strong anti-European position. For Söder, the era of multilateralism is dead and it is time for Nations to strike back.

Fate of EPP, Spitzenkandidat process also uncertain

The majority in the CDU and a minority within the CSU want ‘European answers’, including better but fair control of the EU external borders. Conversely, a majority in the CSU and a minority in the CDU consider themselves true conservatives, favour national solutions and see Europe as a fortress.

The uncertainty doesn’t end there. The very process of choosing the EU’s top people via the Spitzenkandidat process [the nomination of a top candidate by all political groups] is also in question.

Macron’s En Marche clearly says it does not support the process and Germany has not been too enthusiastic either. In the end, it may even revert to the tried and tested horse-trading in the Council.

The last three Commissions were led by EPP politicians but that may now change.

“If the EPP were to lose substantially in the European elections, they wouldn’t really have the authority to present the Spitzenkandidat, and the same goes for the socialists, who are expected to suffer a substantial reverse,” said Merritt.

“So it keeps taking us back to Macron and whether the French want to reassert their imprimatur on shaping the EU in the next five-year mandate,” he said.

Once again, a major unknown comes from Germany: Manfred Weber’s bid for the EPP’s candidacy is far from assured. It all depends on the outcome of the election in Bavaria on 14 October.

Polls show the CSU losing the majority it is desperately seeking to keep, which means there will be a coalition. If it is with the FDP (Liberals), there will be little impact. But if it has to be either with the Greens or the AfD, discussions will be very tense.

This would mean a weakened CSU leader Seehofer and an invigorated Merkel. And that will impact the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat process in Helsinki (7-8 November). A candidate from a weakened and controversial CSU might not be able to defeat other front-runners, such as Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, for example.

Europe’s liberals, led by former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, have been keen to jump on Macron’s bandwagon of ‘pro-Europeans’ but have been kept at arm’s length so far.

Macron aide: We’re not discussing alliance with Verhofstadt

A senior member of Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party has rejected an alliance with liberals in the European Parliament ahead of EU elections in May next year.

Another dark horse could be the Greens, who are doing surprisingly well in opinion polls in Germany.

“If we are looking at the German Green party, we might head towards a surprise in the European election,” a Green party official told EURACTIV.

“In Bavaria, three weeks before the election, the Greens are slowly but consistently rising. In fact, the Green party is stronger than the SPD. The message the party is spreading has always been pretty clear, voters know what the party stands for. And in time of high political vagueness, that’s definitely an asset.”

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