Paddy Agnew: 'Brexit fallout 'to shape Euro elections''
Populism on the right and left is set to bring sweeping change to the European Parliament, writes Paddy Agnew
At 10am in Milan last Tuesday morning, about 12 hours before Theresa May's spectacular Brexit defeat in the House of Commons, another potentially significant European development was beginning.
Luigi di Maio and Alessandro di Battista, the two most prominent leaders of Italy's Five Star protest movement, were setting out on a "road trip" to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, 500km away. On the road, the pair remained in contact with the 5 Star faithful via the web-cam, sharpening their swords with a series of "interesting" statements as they prepared to lay siege to the EU castle.
"Either the European Union changes its treaties or the European Union will collapse and it won't be the fault of the Five Stars," said Di Maio, a deputy prime minister in Italy's current Five Star/The League coalition government.
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When they arrived outside the "walls" of the EU Parliament, Di Maio was even more outspoken, underlining the "absurdity" of having two EU parliaments, one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg. His travelling companion Di Battista summed up the spirit of their road trip when he said: "This parliament here should be closed down..."
The 5 Star Movement has never been short of innovative ideas and this road trip was another of them as they used their storming of the EU castle to officially open their campaign for this year's European parliamentary elections on May 23-26.
The thing is, of course, that this year, for once, there is the sensation that the European elections actually matter.
Electorates all over the 27 member EU (or will it still be 28?) have long seen European elections as essentially a nationwide opinion poll on a whole range of domestic matters with little or scarce reference to key EU issues such as migration, the euro, environmental concerns, EU foreign policy, the CAP (common agricultural policy) and so on. To some extent, the EU elections have essentially been a sort of mock Leaving Cert in readiness for the real thing at the next domestic general election.
This is logical enough since these elections take place locally and feature exactly the same parties and protagonists as those who grace every national scene. Obviously, they are going to concentrate on what matters most to their electorate.
If you wanted to have a truly different, truly European election, it would probably make more sense to run the same party in many different countries. Furthermore, all candidates should be forced to play an "away" game.
In other words, no Irish citizen or resident should be allowed to contest an Irish constituency, no French candidate should stand in France and so on. That way, the guy from Bavaria who has to get himself elected by the people of Katowice in Poland will have to work overtime to earn that €103,000-a-year MEP job.
This sounds mad to some yet it is in fact the policy being adopted by the DiEM25 transnational, progressive party inspired by the charismatic Greek anti-austerity economist, Yanis Varoufakis. Remember, he was the Greek finance minister, the guy with the big motorbike who flashed across the European sky for six intense months in 2015.
DiEM25 intends to field candidates in France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Ireland and maybe elsewhere. (DiEM25, by the way, stands for Democracy in Europe Movement 2025). Furthermore, to make the point, Varoufakis intends to stand in a German constituency.
Varoufakis and DiEM25 will doubtless win little or nothing, being utterly routed by more "conventional" candidates. (They could however actually win one seat through their Italian candidate, Napoli's popular ex-magistrate mayor, Luigi Di Magistris, but that is a "local" candidate win of course.)
Whatever about Yanis Varoufakis' "European Spring" campaign, the reality of this year's Euro elections is that they will be marked by the participation of a whole range of new or newish party names, many of a distinctly populist bent, be it right- or left-wing populism.
Even without the trauma of Brexit, these elections would always have been very different. Right-wing populist parties (or movements) such as Viktor Orban's Fidesz in Hungary, Geert Wilders's Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Sweden Democrats, Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National, the AFD in Germany, Freedom and Justice in Poland, Matteo Salvini's League in Italy, to name but some, will all feature seriously.
Obviously there is, too, a populist left, arguably not as successful as the populist right. Movements such as Podemos in Spain, 5 Star in Italy, Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, Peter Pilz List in Austria, La France Insoumise, the Dutch GreenLeft and many other smaller leftist forces will also feature.
To complicate matters further, there is too a populist centre, best represented by the En Marche party of French President Emmanuel Macron, but also including such as Cuidadanos in Spain.
What would appear certain, therefore, is that the presence of so many relatively new forces will change the overall make-up and dynamics of the European Parliament. The unprecedented triumph last month of the far-right Vox party in Andalusian regional elections in Spain only serves as a reminder that the "populists" are on their way to Brussels and Strasbourg.
Almost since the very first European elections in 1979, the European Parliament has been governed by a mainstream European establishment, expressed through the European People's Party (EPP) on the right and the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) on the left. Yet, some opinion polls (see the pollofpolls.eu data, published by Politico.eu) suggest that these two forces will lose out heavily in May, with the EPP losing up to 40 seats and the S&D losing up to 52 seats.
What does this mean for EU government? Will the parliament be blocked? What impact will such results have on the major EU appointments - the presidencies of the Commission, the European Council, the European Central Bank and the EU Foreign Affairs "minister"?
What is more, all of these questions ask themselves against the totally uncertain, totally disorienting background of Brexit.
Sandro Gozi, under-secretary for European affairs in the recent Renzi and Gentiloni Italian governments, told the Sunday Independent that, despite everything, the EU parliament is not about to go into "shutdown". He acknowledges the obvious changes on the way but argues that the EPP and S&D blocks will still hold sway, perhaps with a little help from Liberal friends. He also points out that, Brexit or no Brexit, the European project will resist and prosper.
He said: "We are a community of interests, values and destiny, which is almost impossible to disentangle without major damage. The EU's contribution to the daily life of all Europeans is much larger than it is given credit for: peace, free movement, no borders, one common currency, a common trade policy, programs such as Erasmus+ and structural funds, and a lot more which are direct solutions to today's society's needs. Abandoning all this for the illusion of national sovereignty is just suicidal."
Irish MEP and European Parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness of Fine Gael, ironically, sees one small silver lining to the Brexit cloud. Namely, thanks to Brexit, people are for once talking and thinking European elections, telling the Sunday Independent: "In Ireland, we might for the first time have a European election dominated by European issues because normally it is dominated by national issues such as water charges or whatever, but Brexit clearly has made Europe much more prominent in the public debate."
Even though she acknowledges the make-up of the new parliament will be "very uncertain", she does not expect major policy changes on key issues such as, for example, migration.
She added: "Clearly a parliament that is very different in its make-up will have an influence on every policy, controversial or not, and perhaps they (the populists) could stymie things for a bit. But the European Parliament works on the basis of consensus and compromise and we have been able to do that via the EPP and the Socialists. There has been that ability to get the numbers, the very thing that the House of Commons is currently failing to do."
With a new European Commission due to take office, however, some important policies could be set for a change of direction. For example, was the belated apology to Greece, issued last week by outgoing EC President Jean-Claude Juncker, a sign of things to come? Was that the beginning of the end of what Yanis Varoufakis calls the EU's "awful policy mix of universal austerity for the many and socialism for the bankers".
One final thought. The citizens of Europe can sleep easy. Silvio Berlusconi, 82-year-old media tycoon and former Italian prime minister, last week announced that he will be running for the European parliament.
For 25 years now, he has been at the centre of corruption investigations, accusations of money laundering, charges of abuse of public office, sex scandals and much else besides. He has even been banned from public office because of a conviction for tax fraud.
Yet, at 82, he is once again ready to, as he famously said in 1994, "take to the pitch", saying: "I have decided out of a sense of responsibility to head for Europe, where there is a deep lack of thinking about the world."
He said it. Now you can sleep easy.