In less than a month from now, on 22 – 25 May, voters in the European Union will elect a new European Parliament (EP). Those elections will be followed, later this year, by the appointment of a new European Commission. With concerns about unemployment, slow emergence from the economic crisis, security concerns, climate change there is no shortage of campaign issues. In addition the media have identified a general feeling of “euro-fatigue” and expect strong support for parties on the far left and right, including many that are anti-establishment or “Eurosceptic”. This risks turning the elections in some countries into a referendum on the EU, rather than a vote on policies to address the real and very important issues at stake.
Ketchum Brussels, in partnership with Traackr, has been tracking the debate on these issues on the main social media. You may want to have a look at who’s been most active in the debate on the upcoming elections. The ranking is constantly updated so you may want to go back several times to see what has changed. One of the main and often insufficiently understood features of political debate in Europe is that the EU is both multicultural and multilingual. In addition to English you may also want to see who’s most actively talking about the elections in German, French and Spanish.
Many observers have been trying to predict not only the outcome of the elections but also the effect this will have on those policies. But often such predictions go hardly beyond the stage of speculations for two important reasons:
- they fail to recognize that at the EU policies are still largely set by the Commission and not by the EP;
- they look at the EP from the perspective of a national parliament, but the EP is not like other parliaments; it misses in particular a direct political link with the “government” which has significant consequences.
The EU has been deliberately set up as an organization where strong executive powers are invested in an independent “Commission”. Only when new powers are added (or existing ones amended) is there a role for the legislature. But some of the strongest powers can be exercised without any interference from the EP and the Council. This is true in particular for the EU’s competition policy, which has given the Commission the power to regulate some of the most powerful companies in the world, including Google, Microsoft and Gazprom. It is also the Commission which negotiates international agreements such as with the US on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership TTIP.
It is therefore not enough to simply look at the results of the EP elections. The future development of EU policies will probably depend a lot more on who makes up the next Commission then on which political family will form the largest political group in the EP. This is different in the EU member states where parliamentary elections have a much more direct bearing on actual policies because there is a normally a direct relationship between the parliamentary majority and the composition and political orientation of the government. Such a link has so far been missing at the EU.
But this is about to change. This year a new procedure will apply, created by the so-called “Lisbon Treaty”, which allows the EP to “elect” the President of the European Commission. It will do so on the basis of a proposal by the European Council of heads of state and government, but this proposal must “take into account the elections to the European Parliament”.
It is unclear how the European Council will take the elections into account. The EP has been trying to grab the initiative by calling upon the European Council to propose the candidate put forward by the party that “wins” the election. One of the most watched issues in the run-up to the elections is therefore whether the socialists become the largest group in the EP, allowing their candidate, Martin Schulz to become Commission President. Or will it be the Christian–democrats and thus their candidate Jean-Claude Juncker? And what will this mean for the policies of the next Commission?
These two candidates, together with Ska Keller for the Greens and Guy Verhofstadt for the Liberals, took part in what the media called the First European Presidential Debate, setting out their views on the most important issues. But things are not that simple as there’s also another, probably much more relevant dynamic in play. If the European Council were to honour the EP’s “demand” this would reduce the European Council of heads of state and government to rubberstamping a proposal from the largest political group in the EP. This is highly unlikely of course, not just because it would deny them an effective say in who will be the next Commission president, but, much more importantly, because it would dramatically alter the delicate balance of power that sits at the heart of EU decision-making.
Will the member states through the (European) Council be able to hold on to their current powerful position? Will they perhaps be able to strengthen it even further by disregarding the wishes of the EP and succeeding in having their own candidate appointed? Or will the pendulum start swinging back and will the Commission and the EP come out of the processes this year more strongly?
This may sound like the stuff that is exciting only to Brussels insiders while being a turn-off to most others. But who calls the shots in Brussels should be watched very carefully by all Europeans and by companies from elsewhere who do business in the EU. The winner of the “institutional struggle” between the EP and the Council will be able to define the legislative agenda, together with the European Commission.
What this can lead to can be shown by the events of the past five years. The EP has been able to score some successes such as when the Council gave in on allowing more centralised solutions in banking regulation. But in a number of other high profile cases the EP overplayed its cards and made demands that the member states in the Council considered so outrageous that it led to paralysis.
On-line privacy, turned into a hot topic by Edward Snowden’s revelations, may be one of the clearest examples of this. The EP’s civil liberties committee (LIBE) reported out very ambitious new privacy rules that were totally unacceptable to the Council. With the two chambers of the EU legislature unable to find a compromise solution new rules were put off until several years from now at the earliest, leaving pressing and very real problems unanswered.
What voters and companies need from the EU institutions is less point-scoring and a more consensual approach to policy-making. Whether the new procedures under which the EP and the Council will appoint a new European Commission bring such consensus or will on the contrary lead to more political struggles remains to be seen. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating! We at Ketchum Brussels will follow developments closely and keep our clients informed. And where needed, we will help them avoid that there lunch will be eaten!