Dr Kirsty Hughes: European alliances shaken not broken

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron speak to the media ahead of a European Council meeting on Brexit in Brussels.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron speak to the media ahead of a European Council meeting on Brexit in Brussels.
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The challenge of European politics in recent years is best illustrated by the fact that where the EU27 most succeeded in being united, not fragmented, was on Brexit. A common stance against a shambolic UK approach to Brexit proved rather easy.

But on tougher issues, from eurozone reform to migration and asylum, from the rule of law and human rights to climate change and industrial strategy, unity was not much in evidence. And underpinning many of the EU divisions were both political divisions and a lack of solidarity – made worse by a disappearance of a collective commitment to eventual compromise.

As the results of the European Parliament elections are absorbed in Brussels and across the EU, is European politics now looking up again – or will division and stasis remain the order of the day?

Overall, the results of the elections look better than many had feared. The right and far-right populist “surge” did not materialise, despite notably strong results for right-wing populists in Italy, France, Poland and Hungary – and not forgetting the UK on that list.

But elsewhere, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, the far right did less well than anticipated (and particularly badly in Denmark).

The cosy European Parliament coalition of the centre-right European People’s party and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats has certainly been shaken up. These two major groupings no longer command a majority in the 751 seat parliament and will rely on the European Liberals and Greens – both groupings did very well in the elections. The Liberals (brought together in the so-called Alde group) increased their seats by 38 MEPs to 105 in total, and the Greens added 19 taking them to 69 MEPs.

Behind these results lie bigger shake-ups in individual member states – the Greens came second in Germany with a 20 per cent vote share, displacing the social-democrats (SPD) dropping sharply to under 16 per cent – this may yet threaten the viability of Germany’s ruling coalition.

But though Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU grouping came in first, she too looked weakened with her vote share down six points on 2014 (and doubts growing over whether new CDU party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is really up to the job of soon stepping into Merkel’s shoes). The far-right AfD did less well than in Germany’s 2017 elections but better than in the last European elections – but, at 11 per cent, is not looking like a major threat.

In Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz did very well despite the corruption scandal over his far-right Freedom party coalition partners, only to be rudely ejected from office in a no confidence vote by the Monday. To the east, in Hungary and Poland, despite EU concerns – and investigations – over rule of law issues in both states, their ruling parties did well – notably in Hungary where prime minister Viktor Orban’s ruling party Fidesz got over 50 per cent of the vote.

None of this will help Brussels’ efforts to challenge anti-democratic and authoritarian moves in both countries. And, in perhaps one of the worst results for those hoping the EU is starting to move away from, not towards, right-wing populism, Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and his Lega party came top with a third of the vote. Salvini is already boasting he will ignore EU budget rules, setting up a rapid clash with Brussels.

Elsewhere, things look more positive. Marine le Pen beat Emmanuel Macron to first place in the elections, but only just (23.3 per cent to 22.4 per cent for Macron’s party) – and this is tempered by the fact her National Rally failed to increase its vote on last time. More encouragingly, France saw a Green surge too, with 13.5 per cent putting them in third place.

Europe’s politicians are now wondering how EU law-making and political dynamics will change since the two big old groupings of the centre-right and centre-left will need Liberal and/or Green votes to get anything through.

While some see this as a sign of fragmentation, it looks more like a positive readjustment in many ways. Many younger voters backed the Greens. And if the EU is to find a new strategic direction, rather than just muddling through, it will need new ideas and creativity not the same old compromises.

And given the fears of a populist surge, it’s noteworthy that where these four centrist political groupings in 2014 held 70 per cent of the Parliament’s seats, today, after last week’s elections, they hold 67 per cent. The centre has held pretty well but it’s also changed. One of the most immediate knock-on effects of this greater diversity at the centre of the European Parliament is on the current big stand-off over who gets the EU’s top jobs, now up for grabs.

Where in 2014 the European People’s party came first making it hard to resist their proposal of Jean Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission, with their loss of seats (even if still the largest group) there is now much more resistance to their preferred lead candidate Manfred Weber. While backed by Angela Merkel, he’s clearly opposed by France’s Macron – and indeed by the newly powerful Greens and Liberals.

Who will finally emerge to run the Commission, the European Council – and the European Central Bank – is for now anyone’s guess. And what damage it may do to the Franco-German relationship in the process is an open question too.

But after the hard-fought theatrics over the top jobs, the EU will still face many challenges ahead. The far right has done well enough that it will impact on to EU politics, not only in the parliament but in the council and potentially in the commission too.

Tackling migration challenges – at a time when EU demographics would in fact point towards a more open migration policy – will not get any easier. And eurozone reform will depend not least on the Franco-German couple rediscovering some of their old bonhomie.

The EU faces challenges ahead in the wider world too – an unpredictable Donald Trump and a resurgent China will not make the global trade environment any easier. Foreign policy will remain a challenge for the EU. With diverse views and relationships across the member states on Russia, China and the US, the EU will find it hard to give a strong lead on defending multilateralism, human rights and taking stronger action on climate change – yet this is vital.

But the European election results even so give the EU a chance – a chance to be bold on a new green industrial strategy, to be bold on insisting on European values and rights being respected at home and promoted abroad.

Whether the EU will rise to this challenge – and whether the UK will play a role in this, or remain obsessed with its Brexit conundrum – is the key question to be answered in the coming months.

Kirsty Hughes is director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations