Trans-Europe Express: Mistrust is gaining ground in Europe

Members of Parliament vote on the future Composition of Parliament after Brexit at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 07 February 2018. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

The wind of enthusiasm blown by the victory of President Emmanuel Macron last June has vanished.

In a historic vote on Wednesday, the European Parliament rejected the innovative idea of transnational lists, which had been one of the cardinal points of Macron’s vision for Europe.

In what seemed a coup, without precedent, the centre-right pro-European EPP group in the assembly bowed to the Eurosceptic conservative ECR and wiped decades of debates over creating a European public space.

With their vote, they effectively crushed the possible creation of a true European citizenship—turning citizens into not just nationals but also Europeans.

Their take was that in the upcoming elections in 2019, Eurosceptics would hijack the transnational lists and use once again the argument that the system was imposed from the top and proved nothing else that the EU was an ‘elitist’ project  to build a federal superstate.

Arguably, the transnational lists were not the best possible tool but, as someone said, it was a bad good idea, a first step in the right direction. Architects of European integration – Helmut Kohl and Wilfried Martens, incidentally, both coming from the EPP – lobbied for such an instrument to bring Europeans closer together, despite its flaws.

So, what just happened on Wednesday was nothing else than a mistrust-led power game between some MEPs and EU leaders.

This comes at a time when political forces are witnessing a full display of distrust in the months-long struggle of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to form a viable government.

The agreement between CDU/CSU and SPD lays their policies down to the last detail.  The deal, which even Merkel calls “small-scale” is not a sign of trust in Germany’s power for renewal, but rather shows that they mistrust each other, the Blacks (CDU/CSU) and the Reds (SPD) – and their party members as well.

A weak Merkel in the European Council can only upset the balance of power within the European Council, allowing Mr Macron to pick up the reins of the soon-to-be 27-country bloc.

That upsets a few in the Parliament, especially since the French President had the audacity to criticise the Spitzenkandidaten process put in place during the 2014 elections.

At at a time of growing intergovernmentalism triggered by the many crises, it is not surprising that MEPs played the red card and voted on Wednesday to maintain the system and regain clout in the political setup.

These are just the latest symptoms of a growing mistrust across Europe – the rule of law in Poland, the growing separatist movements in Catalonia, not to mention Brexit, and the building up of unions within the Union, Visegrád, Club Med.

The Visegrad 4 (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia), for example, met on 25 January and made clear they don’t support either the Spitzenkandidaten or the transnational lists. They said the lists could benefit bigger member states, where candidates could receive more votes,  so candidates would have no motivation to campaign in smaller states.

Unless politicians rediscover leadership and refrain from becoming a hostage of populistic pressure, there is a risk of losing decades of European construction and falling in a no man’s zone, which will blow the EU a destructive setback.

It is also worth remembering that the prospect of Eurosceptic parties performing strongly in European and national elections has haunted EU officials and pro-Europeans for the last 15 years.

As liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt said, a battle was lost but not the war. But the EU is running the risk of being bugged in details that will mine the ‘unity in diversity’ design and fail to see the forest for the trees.

This edition of Trans-Europe Express is co-financed by the European Parliament.

The Inside Track
By Alexandra Brzozowski

New deal, old partners. After month of negotiations, Germany finally will have a new government coalition. However, the reactions to what some call a “forced marriage” range between restraint and scepticism.

German coalition blues. The coalition agreement shows how much the future partners, the Blacks (CDU/CSU) and the Reds (SPD), mistrust each other and their party members. A commentary from media partner “Der Tagesspiegel.”

Good news for Europe? The draft of the German coalition agreement speaks “a new beginning for Europe” in the next four years. Political analyst Matthias Kullas explains what the coalition deal means for possible European reforms.

Holocaust bill. Amidst international outcry, Polish President Duda signed the controversial anti-defamation bill into law and directed it to the Constitutional Tribunal. The law among others penalises calling World War II Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.

Nuclear upgrade. France plans a €37-billion revamp of its nuclear land- and sea-based nuclear deterrent as part of nearly €300 billion to be spent for defense by 2025. This also means reaching the 2% NATO target, compared to previous 1.8%.

Blurred Brexit visions. The EU believes that Britain’s departure from the bloc by the end of 2020 will not be so short and sweet as the Brexit transition plans foresee, with the British government preparing for a longer goodbye.

Western Balkan Strategy. Emphasizing that the Western Balkans are part of Europe, the Commission launched its long-awaited Western Balkans strategy, aiming to inject new momentum into EU integration.

6 to go. All six countries in the Western Balkans have a European perspective, with Serbia as one of the leaders in the process, said Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn. However, there will be “no discount” for meeting the accession criteria.

Romania grilled in EP. The country was in the focus at EP plenary this week over judiciary reforms that many see as a threat to its rule of law. A fact-check of the statements by EURACTIV Romania, however, found that many comments made by Romanian MEPs from ALDE and S&D did not reflect the reality on the ground.

Border dispute. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic was urged by Parliament and Commission to find a solution to the long-standing border dispute with Slovenia about the sea and land border in the northern Adriatic

An Italian exit? Leader of Italy’s right-wing Northern League Matteo Salvini, indicated his party is preparing ground to leave the euro zone and called the euro a “German currency” which had damaged Italy’s economy.

Austrian sparring-partner. New president of the Austrian parliament, Wolfgang Sobotka, announced that he wants to work more closely with the institutions in Strasbourg and put more focus on historical awareness.

Border worries. Spain is worried about security on its southern border due to possible influx of Islamist fighters to West Africa’s Sahel region, which has become a breeding ground for jihadist groups in recent years.

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Measure co-financed by the European Union

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