Fears of the populist right seizing control of the European Parliament after the 2019 elections are greatly exaggerated, says Piotr Buras. But the new European Parliament and Commission that will come out of the election will certainly be more colourful, he says.
Piotr Buras is the director of the Warsaw office at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
He spoke to Bartosz T. Wieliński of EURACTIV Poland’s media partner “Gazeta Wyborcza”.
According to forecasts, after next year’s elections for the European Parliament, a much larger representation of populists and Eurosceptics will enter the chamber than before. Will it be a big shock for the EU?
It will be a bump, but not a revolution. The visions of the populist right taking over control of the European Parliament are greatly exaggerated. According to research by the Adenauer Foundation, the extreme right, which is currently divided into two factions, plus the group of European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR), to which Law and Justice belongs, will together have a total of 150 members.
The current European Parliament has 750 members. Even if you add extreme leftists and non-members to this, together they could have one-third of the votes. But an alliance of the extreme right and extreme left is unlikely.
We are behaving a little like a rabbit standing in front of a snake. We are dying of fear that the extreme right will take over Europe. As a result, many politicians are afraid to promote a positive pro-European programme and they take over the slogans of populists, hoping that in this way they will be able to take away their electorate. This is a very dangerous tendency.
European parties are now unveiling their frontrunners [Spitzenkandidaten] to lead the European Commission. Jean-Claude Juncker won his position in that way. Will it work also in this election?
The idea of frontrunners is to give voters the influence over who will direct the EU and what its program will be. The idea was that the EU institutions should have greater democratic legitimacy. But this promise can no longer be fulfilled.
We already know that apart from populist growth, two major European parties will be weakened: the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Social Democrats. They will not have a majority in the parliament and will not be able to appoint the head of the Commission without entering into coalitions, they will have to have the support of, for example, the Liberals. And the Liberals will say that Manfred Weber, the likely candidate of the EPP, does not suit them. And then what?
The promise that the head of the Commission will implement the electoral programme is also exaggerated, since it will consist of politicians from various parties, including populist ones.
Will the expected election success of the populists strengthen them even more in Europe as well?
I would not overestimate the impact of what is happening in the European Parliament on the debate in Europe. It is the situation in the member states that translates into the situation in the European Parliament, not vice versa.
The elections will be a test of the strength of populists in individual member states. And this will translate not only to selected MEPs, but also to future Commission members. They are nominated by their governments. The PiS government, Viktor Orban’s government, as well as the governments of Austria and Italy, which include populists, will nominate their representative. Will such a Commission be able to act?
Will it be profitable for Poland or Hungary to send Commissioners who will throw sand into the EU cogwheel?
It will depend on how much populists will be able to cooperate with each other and coordinate their policies – and how the political mainstream will respond to them. Today, Orban and Matteo Salvini [Leader of North League, head of the Italian Ministry of Interior] say they want to rebuild Europe based on other values.
In the current Commission, Hungary is represented by Tibor Navracsics, a non-political, moderate character. I can imagine a situation that next year Orban will come to the conclusion that it pays off to send someone more expressive. Poland can do the same. The Commission will certainly be more colourful.
So far, we were faced with a continuous EU evolution. Will the process of deepening integration be stopped after next year’s elections?
It can already be seen that a certain model of integration is running out. It is a community model in which the Commission has proposals for the whole of the union. This is evident in the migration policy. Since the outbreak of the refugee crisis in 2014, all proposals have fallen through. In this matter, the Commission was irrelevant.
The community model replaces the creation of a coalition of the willing by the member states. France’s defence initiative basically operates outside the structures of the European Union. In the matter of limiting migration, Germany, without the participation of the Commission, agrees with Italy, France, Spain and will probably at some point, together as a group of countries, negotiate new rules for the readmission of migrants or development aid with the African countries.
Cooperation between countries in Europe will be tightened. No country is able to cope alone with migration or climate problems. But this will not be cooperation within the whole EU, and sometimes even outside of it.
Where is Poland in all of this?
The Polish government believes that the majority of trends in the EU are contrary to Polish interests. The defence policy agenda is perceived as a threat to NATO and our US relations. Making migration policy a priority issue in the EU is bad because PiS runs the “policy of zero refugees”. An ambitious climate policy is at odds with the government’s commitment to maintaining hard coal mining.
As a result, Poland does not get involved in many things. It may turn out that when money and political significance are to be found where countries communicate with each other, as to a common policy, the EU will only become an eggshell. And Poland will be in it.
In my opinion, PiS misinterprets our interests in some matters. Are “zero refugees” or coal issues the Polish raison d’état, whether the EU defence policy or the directive on posted workers really hits on Poland?
The government is a hostage to old thinking because Poland has been in favour of a transatlantic alliance for years, it has always supported mining. The problem is that the world has changed and that politics should change. In addition, there is also a serious instrumentalisation of foreign policy for a populist internal policy.
When did Europe’s troubles begin? When the migration crisis broke out?
Earlier. If there had been no eurozone crisis in Greece or Italy, the migration crisis would have taken a completely different face. And so it hit very weakened countries.
But talking about a crisis of the European Union is a wrong diagnosis. In a crisis, there are nation states and the model of current liberal democracies that are shaken by the pressure of globalisation, migration, climate change, as well as changes related to the functioning of the media or the public sphere. Criticism of ailing national states is shifting to criticism of the EU. But it is not the union that is the source of these problems.
Will populists anchor on the political scene permanently?
We are dealing with a dramatic change, but it is not populists that are a problem. The centre of the political scene is collapsing. Rarely in Europe does it happen that it is as divided as in Poland, between populists and their opponents. In the majority of countries, two big parties have so far been tied: centre-right and centre-left. A few smaller parties operated alongside them.
In Germany, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are losing support at an alarming pace. At the same time, populists from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) are not becoming the greatest force at all. The problem of Germany is not that AfD will seize half of the political scene, only that the fragmentation will be so great that it will not be possible to create a new stable coalition. It is the result of the fragmentation of societies. There are no more classes, no compact interest groups, people are more unstable.
Today, the migration crisis is the past, unemployment in the EU is falling, the economy is growing. The sea has calmed down but Europeans are more and more afraid.
Because we live in a world in which created facts are more important than real facts. It could be seen in the US before the last election. You can see it now in Europe: The scale of migration to Europe has fallen to the level of six years ago, although in the EU there is talk of a flood of refugees, a wave of uncontrolled migration. People’s fears are skillfully fueled and used by populists. We cannot defend ourselves against this.
Populists also feed on the crisis of liberalism, on the mistakes made by liberals who put too much emphasis on economic efficiency. They also feed on the ineffectiveness of the nation state, which does not satisfy the needs of citizens. But the topic of migration is very strong because people have a certain fear of foreign cultures inscribed in their genes. Today, populists say that limiting migration is a matter of will. Orban speaks about reversing it. Behind these words lurks some great barbarism, it is pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
We must show that there is no migration disaster today and that this problem can be solved in accordance with our principles and values. The politicians of the mainstream party must speak in such a language, and not overtake Orban and Salvini in anti-immigrant rhetoric.