The EP elections did not really surprise anyone. One of the much noted aspects was the mounting support for Eurosceptic parties in many countries, including in some of the original six. The Netherlands was bucking the trend as the Eurosceptic PVV of Geert Wilders lost a seat rather than winning several as they had hoped and expected. But in France, the UK, Greece and Denmark the Eurosceptics claimed important victories. Even in Germany, a country normally opposed to extremist parties, the Alternative für Deutschland did much better than expected. This has led some well-respected journalists and other observers to call for changes at the EU. The FT’s Gideon Rachman called it a populist howl that EU leaders cannot simply ignore. He admits that in a currency union “control of economic and fiscal policy can never be fully restored” (which is why he believes in a break-up of the euro). But even he sees that this is not very likely and that it is more realistically to state that “the goal should be to retain as much national autonomy as is feasible, in a single-currency zone.”
However, one should not lose sight of the fact that the majority of European voters who went to the polls last week still voted for parties who are for, not against the EU. They may and in most cases do want changes. But even in the Netherlands, one of two countries that voted in a referendum against the European constitution, only 15 % want their country to pull out of the euro. And although in France one quarter of the electorate voted for the Eurosceptic Front National, this still leaves three quarters in favour of the European project. With such a large majority for European cooperation it would be hard to justify a massive repatriation of powers to the member states as the Eurosceptics demand, let alone to start a process aimed at dismantling the EU.
This does not mean that the EU should continue to apply the policies of the past. Not because of the eurosceptics but because the wish to change things is shared by a large majority of politicians at the EU. Before the elections this wish was expressed most clearly in the “other” chamber of the EU Legislature. The Council has been unwilling to go along with some very ambitious proposals on issues that are not immediately thought of as being part of core internal market issues. The proposals for new privacy rules and for a European consumer sales law received large support from the EP but are lingering at the Council. This was largely because the Council saw these proposals as “solutions in search of a problem”. In a somewhat ironic manner the election results may have more of an impact on the Council than on the EP. Given the beating that the ruling parties in the UK and France have been given their maneuvering space on issues that are not “core” Internal market has been greatly reduced. It is for this reason, more than because of stronger representation of the Eurosceptics at the EP, that one can expect a less ambitious legislative agenda.
Such diminished flexibility on the part of several member states will also affect decisions on the EU leadership. Tonight the European Council will have a first discussion at an informal dinner on what’s next. Although several key appointments have to be made, it is clear that the two presidential positions (of the Commission and the European Council) are key. They will show which priorities the member states will set for the next five years. That period will no doubt be heavily influenced by the referendum David Cameron promised the British voters in case they return him to office in May of next year. Appointing strong presidents who are in favour of a clear policy focused on growth and jobs may well be the only option if countries want to help bring about a positive outcome of the referendum. At this stage none of the three candidates for Commission President seems able to galvanise support for the EU in Britain and indeed in some of the other countries where Eurosceptic parties did well.
The only person whose name is increasingly mentioned and who would go a long way towards creating a more credible EU with more credible policies and institutions is Christine Lagarde. Her excellent English allows her to address the British electorate very directly while her nationality and credibility in France also offers some of the best hopes of countering Marine LePen’s arguments. Not without significance may be the fact that with Mme. Lagarde in Brussels, President Hollande will have rid himself of the most credible opponent in the 2017 presidential elections.