The Liverpool View: Europe after the deluge – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

EUparliament-1wDr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Liverpool

“The scale of anti-EU sentiment had been predicted, but the election results still sent shockwaves across the continent. Widely interpreted as evidence of deepening popular resentment towards the European project, press reaction ranged from suggestions that the EU was ‘at the crossroads’, ‘in crisis’ or even in some cases ‘dead’.

Addressing a common theme, the gap between Europe’s elites and its people, The Wall Street Journal noted how “Europe’s leaders seem wholly unprepared for these political earthquakes” . The US newspaper elaborated that  “(voters) want attention paid now to problems such as crime and immigration. With Europe’s traditional parties offering few solutions, marginal parties and extremists have filled the void”.

Meanwhile, Europe’s political leaders took it in turns to demonstrate they had listened and that the EU would need to change. “We understand the fears about the loss of sovereignty”, noted the Dutch Prime Minister, adding: “Europe must take account of that. We need to involve all citizens in the Europe of the future”. His comments echoed those of the British Prime Minister who had previously told the international media: “We have to learn lessons from the (the vote) and seek to shape a new EU”.

Europe at the crossroads (again)

None of the above material relates to the 2014 European Parliament elections. The Wall Street Journal article, from April 1992, was analysing a series of hefty election defeats for established political parties in western Europe, amid concerns that Denmark was set to vote against ratifying the Maastricht Treaty.  The Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, was reacting to his country’s ‘no’ vote in the June 2005 referendum on the proposed EU constitution. The British Prime Minister quoted above, Tony Blair, was reacting, just days before, to the rejection of the EU constitution by French voters.

Earthquakes, crossroads and crises are familiar stuff in EU politics. The European project has been pronounced dead so often, it could teach the average time lord a thing or two about regeneration.  So, amid fresh calls for the EU to be scaled back and powers be returned from European institutions to nation states, are there any grounds to suppose things will be any different this time?

The earthquake resilient parliament

Back in Brussels following his re-election, Nigel Farage told the BBC yesterday: “I just sat in a meeting where you wouldn’t think that anything happened at all”.  Despite his attempt to feign shock, Farage knows all too well that the best place for anyone seeking refuge from the European electoral earthquake is in the European Parliament itself.

Over the next month, the business of the European Parliament will be dominated by the task of  forming party groups. The broad outcome can already be predicted. Around two-thirds of MEPs will join one of three groupings representing, respectively, the dominant currents of Christian democracy, social democracy and liberalism in European politics.

Any shift in the balance of power will be minimal. The centre-right European People Parties and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats will remain by far the largest groupings. Between them, they will account for 5 in 10 MEPs, compared to 6 in every 10 before the elections. Together with MEPs from the significantly smaller Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, these strongly pro-EU groupings will continue to dominate parliamentary proceedings.

Without doubt, more dissent will be heard about the European project in the parliament’s committees and plenaries than ever before. If UKIP can work with other anti-EU parties in a stable party group, this dissent may also be more effectively coordinated than previously. But past experience suggests tensions between UKIP, the French Front National and other parties will limit this ambition.

Mr Cameron’s gamble

While the impact of these elections on the European Parliament itself will be far from seismic, their impact is already highly apparent in the domestic politics of key member states. In those countries where anti-EU parties have found greatest success, political leaders are under immediate pressure to respond.

In this sense, despite losing 7 of his MEPs, the elections have temporarily strengthened David Cameron’s hand. Having promised a ‘repatriation’ of powers from EU institutions to quell dissent within his own party, Cameron knows the spike in support for anti-EU parties elsewhere presents a unique opportunity. Emboldened by the knowledge that he is not isolated, he warned yesterday that “Brussels has got too big, too bossy, too interfering” before heading to meet other EU leaders to discuss the results.

There are signs Cameron could secure some unlikely allies, including François Hollande, the Socialist President of France. But Cameron’s efforts to push for urgent EU reforms, as yet unspecified, are also a gamble. He will continue to encounter resistance to any proposals to reverse the dynamics of integration. As the EU comes to a halt at its latest set of crossroads, any attempt to change its direction will almost certainly require time. That is a luxury David Cameron does not have.”


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