quinta-feira, 1 de dezembro de 2016
Meltdown at the European Parliament
Meltdown at the European Parliament
The ‘grand coalition’ has imploded. Prepare for weeks of distraction and legislative paralysis.
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN AND MAÏA DE LA BAUME 12/1/16, 5:11 AM CET Updated 12/1/16, 7:45 AM CET
The carefully calibrated “grand coalition” of Europe’s dominant political parties, which EU leaders have relied on to sustain their agenda and to manage a series of crises since 2014, this week imploded amid the collapse of a power-sharing deal in the European Parliament and the start of a bruising fight over the Parliament presidency.
The rupture cast a shadow of uncertainty over Brussels, raising the prospect of weeks of distraction and legislative paralysis, and leaving European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk with little choice but to watch in dismay from the sidelines and brace for further turbulence.
The fragility of the coalition had been clear even before Parliament President Martin Schulz, a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), last week announced his plans to step down and return to Germany to run for a seat in the Bundestag. But the scope of disarray resulting from his departure is now coming into focus.
The power-sharing agreement had called for the presidency to pass next year from the S&D, the second-largest group in Parliament, to the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group, which also controls the Commission and the Council, through Juncker and Tusk.
But any hope of an orderly transition to fill the presidency evaporated Wednesday as Gianni Pittella, the Italian leader of the S&D, officially declared his candidacy for the top job, setting off a free-for-all among party leaders.
Guy makes his move
Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) — which could provide the decisive votes in an alliance with either the EPP or S&D — moved swiftly to increase his leverage by shoving aside French MEP Sylvie Goulard, an ALDE member who had sought to put herself forward as a compromise candidate, and making clear that he had his group’s backing to declare his own bid.
The ALDE MEPs gave Verhofstadt their unanimous support at a group meeting on Tuesday night and Goulard issued a statement Wednesday withdrawing.
Even if the EPP, led by German MEP Manfred Weber, ultimately is able to clinch the presidency, Pittella declared that the S&P would no longer participate in the “grand coalition” or “Große Koalition” as it is called in German, a nod to the German-speaking buddies — Juncker and Schulz — who were at its heart from the beginning.
“The compromise on which we based our legislative collaboration, which has been carried out in the past two years and a half, was broken — and not by us,” Pittella declared, in announcing his candidacy. “We think there should be a new phase with a new progressive agenda for the second half of the legislation.”
His comments seemed to promise a more combative posture by the S&D, particularly in fighting back against the German-led economic austerity policies that are a bane to countries across the Continent’s southern tier, not just Italy but also Greece, Spain and Portugal.
“We had the impression that the EU was governed by a board of directors led by Juncker and Schulz” — Jean Arthuis, French MEP
“For us socialists, the grand coalition has never existed,” Pittella told POLITICO. “There has been legislative cooperation, borne out of the necessity to go ahead on parliamentary work.” He added: “The great coalition creates an obligation that on every legislative file we have to agree. But it didn’t happen like that because many times we and the EPP have voted differently.”
Pittella told reporters he was willing to work with all groups “except right-wing extremists” to win support for his candidacy and his new agenda. “We want new economic politics, put aside austerity, a new social agenda, a new development model,” he said.
MEPs from other parties also slammed the Große Koalition, which was held together in part by regular dinner meetings of the so-called G5: Juncker, Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Schulz, Weber and Pittella.
“We had the impression that the EU was governed by a board of directors led by Juncker and Schulz,” said Jean Arthuis, a French MEP from the ALDE group. “That had brought too much resentment and not enough debate in the Parliament.”
Whatever the resentments, the Große Koalition has been so central to Juncker’s effort to run a more political, accountable and top-down Commission that in recent months he had loudly expressed his support for Schulz to stay on as Parliament president for an unprecedented third term — despite the agreement calling for the presidency to be passed to the EPP, Juncker’s own party.
For Juncker, the consequences of the coalition breakdown could be severe. On Wednesday, the Commission announced two ambitious new initiatives — a clean energy package and a proposal for stepped-up military cooperation – that could stall amid Parliamentary infighting.
In a recent interview with POLITICO, Juncker’s chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, explained the importance of the coalition — and Schulz — to carrying out the Commission’s agenda over its five-year term.
“In the European Union, we are going through a big crisis, many big crises,” Selmayr said. “And the mandate is five years. And if you want to get something done, you don’t change the team in the middle of it.”
“The team includes Donald Tusk, Martin Schulz,” Selmayr continued, noting they were both up for re-election. “The president of the Commission, therefore, who is here for five years, has an interest that his partners, with whom he has started to work well together — Martin Schulz in the Parliament and President Tusk in the European Council — that they stay the same because you get used to each other. And that is a matter of effectiveness. It’s also a matter of political balance because it’s important to have the balance with Martin Schulz who is the leading Social Democrat.”
That political balance has now gone up in smoke.
Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who has led ALDE since 2009 and who serves as the Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, seems to have little chance of winning the presidency but has already maneuvered aggressively to increase his leverage over the ultimate outcome — and to ratchet up his party’s influence.
One ALDE official acknowledged the power play. “Our priority is to get the most perfect agreement,” the official said. “We want to keep our leadership positions — at least a vice-presidency and maybe more.”
For now, at least, the third-largest group in the Parliament, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), has chosen the Belgian MEP Helga Stevens as its candidate and ruled out supporting any rival conservative candidate from the EPP — its own maneuver to put a high price on any future alliance.
“The EPP is in danger of just assuming that we will fall behind their candidate,” an ECR official said, adding that the group didn’t appreciate Weber’s “attacks” against the U.K. government. “I could see them not voting at all,” the official said.
The ECR currently has Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki as a vice-president of the Parliament and British MEP Vicky Ford as chairwoman of the powerful Internal Market Committee. The official said the group wants to keep both of those posts.
Under parliamentary rules, to be elected president a candidate must win an absolute majority of the votes cast, which means 50 percent plus one. The Parliament is comprised of 751 members, so 376 votes are needed to win the presidency.
External political pressures make this a particularly bad moment for Brussels discord.
Currently, the EPP holds 216 seats, while the S&D has 189, the ECR has 74 and ALDE has 69. Smaller parties and non-affiliated MEPs make up the balance. Allegiances tend to break along party lines, but also nationally with Germany having 96 MEPs, followed by France with 74, and Italy and the U.K. with 73 each.
To be sure, the horse-trading has only just begun. And in the EU, dark clouds can suddenly give way to new sunlight. But external political pressures make this a particularly bad moment for Brussels discord.
Ahead of announcing his bid for the presidency, Pittella reached out to Socialist leaders across the Continent, including French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose own political careers are deeply uncertain. Hollande seems certain to be defeated if he seeks re-election, while Renzi could resign if he loses a crucial constitutional referendum to be held Sunday.
With the 28 heads of state and government in the European Council increasingly pulled in different directions by conflicting political imperatives back home — not to mention the divisiveness of the U.K.’s vote to leave the bloc — the alliance between the Commission and the Parliament has been the key to advancing policy initiatives despite the turbulent atmosphere of rising nationalism and Euroskepticism.
At least part of the blame for the collapse of the coalition lies with Schulz, whose announcement that he would step down caught his own party completely by surprise. At the same time, the unfolding disarray only seems to confirm Schulz’s argument that he was crucially needed in the Parliament, even if it meant unraveling the previously agreed upon power-sharing agreement.
Schulz’s spokesman, Giacomo Fassina, acknowledged that the coalition was built on the friendship and professional trust between Juncker and Schulz.
“The close relationship between President Schulz and President Juncker is built both on personal and political affinity,” he said. “In practice, the relationship served as a functioning coalition in the European Parliament between the EPP and progressive forces and in the institutional domain between the Parliament and the Commission.”
Pittella also said Schulz had been the glue. “This compromise was also guaranteed by Martin Schulz’s presence at the European Parliament,” he said.
“For now, there won’t be any G5,” Pittella added. “For us, Martin Schulz was fundamental.”