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The post-election European Union: internal dynamics and global competition

    • Rome
    • 5 June 2019

          One possible initial interpretation of the European parliamentary vote focused on the retreat of both main traditional parties (People’s and Socialist) and the success of two other pro-Europe parties (Liberals and Greens) that almost offset it, and on a softening in euro-skeptic parties’ positions that seems traceable to changes from within. These latter are certainly a significant force, but they do not appear capable of deeply inflecting the work of the Parliament.

          Another important consideration was voter turnout, which, while undeniably higher, was also a consequence of a nationwide polarization; indeed, clashes over some key issues were viewed precisely as nationalistic in nature.

          In any case, there is much more fragmentation than in the past, with the Liberals and Greens not helping to build consensus on many decisive questions. It is also worth noting that the Greens were successful almost exclusively in the northern segment of the EU and, therefore, cannot be considered a truly pan-European phenomenon. Further uncertainty lies in the fact that “centrist” parties’ reform agendas are far from explicit, meaning that they will perhaps have to be fleshed out in the operational phase of parliamentary negotiations, especially with regard to individual provisions. As for how the Parliament works, moreover, it was pointed out that this institution does not have the same dynamics that national parliaments have: majorities have always been flexible and variable. 

          Therefore, if there is a crisis in the status quo, it is clearly not enough to claim that there are no alternatives to the prevailing consensus; however, at the moment, a concrete vision capable of garnering a majority does not seem to be emerging.

          Examining the intergovernmental dimension, starting with national results, Germany registered a dip in relative importance, partly as a result of the upcoming change in leadership but also of a certain stiffening in historic economic policy stances and a reduced capacity to earn consensus (even with respect to the traditional axis with France). It is difficult to predict whether Angela Merkel’s ability to stabilize and mediate will continue without her as Chancellor of the Union’s largest country.

          Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron is getting ready to tip the scales as representative of the force within the ALDE most capable of supporting an enlarged coalition. This is a specific vision of renewal that departs in procedural terms from an idea for replacing the Spitzenkadidat model of negotiations for the leadership of the new Commission. Nevertheless, at the level of substance, the major challenge concerns how to define a renewal capable of winning broad popular consensus that includes the most fearful segment of the electorate – a challenge that Macron is, in fact, losing domestically in France.

          In light of these national trends in the major member countries, the institution that runs the greatest risk of excessive heterogeneity is the Council. In that case – and compared with the role of the Commission, which will perforce be politically “hybrid”, given the elected governments that form its base – the polarization that could result between technocracy and nationalism would be equally dangerous to the efficacy of policy making processes.

          A more specific review of the economy pointed to the need to include Europe’s options in the global context, beginning with the key unresolved issues of competitiveness and rising tensions. On international trade we have a paradoxical tendency in both the U.S. (with a Trump administration nearly obsessed with the trade balance) and the EU (with rules imposing a balance of payments surplus as a goal for all member countries); the use of tariffs is becoming the norm for what are obviously political reasons, and the same can be said of the SWIFT system and the role of the dollar as a tool by which to exert geopolitical pressure (e.g. in the case of Iran); China systematically pursuing even geopolitical objectives with economic instruments ranging from the “Belt&Road” to the strategic role of firms such as Huawei. Finally, it should be remembered that financial stability is not the goal of major private enterprises, whose profits are also reaped in relatively unstable contexts, which raises the problem of sustainability and of intervention by the authorities in cases of acute crisis.

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