The European Union’s ‘Game of Thrones’: Who Will Be The Next President of The European Parliament?

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EU Parliament in session

Bastian Bayer

Who will be the next president of the United States of America seems to be the big question of 2016, but in the European Parliament another game of thrones has begun.

At the last European Parliament elections in 2014, the conservative EPP and the social democratic S&D made a deal and signed a written agreement that meant that Martin Schulz, the S&D candidate, would become president for the first half of the legislative period and  that the EPP would pick the president for the second half.

Now with the first half coming to an end in January 2017,  the current president Martin Schulz does not seem to be willing to leave office, despite the EPP insisting on the instillation a new president from among their own ranks.

The face of EU policy

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Martin Schulz, President of the EU Parliament

Schulz has been, with interruptions,  president of the EP since 2012 and a Member of the EP (MEP) since 1994. He is often portrayed as a down to earth politician, ingrained and diligent. He is said to have strengthened the position of the European Parliament and even critics say he has made the EP more visible to the European public and the world.

He is considered to be the most influential president in the history of the European Parliament.

However his path to power and appreciation was rocky. The son of a police officer, he wanted to become a football player in his youth but a knee-injury made a professional career impossible. As a result this crushed dream Schulz became an alcoholic in the mid-70s which saw him lose his job and almost get thrown out of his own apartment.

However, despite this inauspicious start, Schulz eventually overcame his addiction with the help of his brother.

What followed is a remarkable career.  After a career  as a bookstore manager Schulz became mayor of his home town, Würselen, following his first engagement in the German Social Democratic Party. In 1994 he was elected member of the European Parliament and became its president in 2012. He reached a high point of his career when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize together with van Rompuy and Barroso on behalf of the European Union.

In 2014 Schulz wanted to become president of the EU Commission, but in the European elections the Conservatives became the largest party and their candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker became president of the Commission, a post he still holds to this day. Nevertheless, this setback did not stop Schulz from being re-elected as President of the EP.

Power play in the middle of the greatest crises in the existence of the EU

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Tusk, Schulz and Juncker

Schulz’s future, however, is unclear, as the first half of this legislative term comes to an end. According to the agreement, Schulz will be replaced by EPP member. However, for some, the agreement does not fit the new circumstances Europe finds itself in.

The S&D argues that with Juncker as President of the Commission and Tusk as President of the Council, already two of the key positions are held by EPP members; and to keep the balance between the largest EU parties, the presidency of the EP should stay with the S&D.

Even a prominent EPP politician and former competitor supports the idea of Schulz retaining the presidency after January 2017, with the simple reason:

“We need stability.”

Just recently Juncker spoke about the many challenges the EU faces in his ‘State of the Union’ address. Brexit, the refugee challenge, economic stagnation and youth-unemployment among many other things.

“Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis.” said Juncker.

To keep stability in these difficult times, Juncker would like to keep the leadership of the institutions as they are, namely, Schulz as president. It is no secret that Martin and Jean-Claude work closely together, Der Spiegel has even accused them of mutually securing each other’s posts.  Juncker said:”The relationship between the Commission and the Parliament has probably never been as good as it is now”, so “Why change a reliable team?”

However the EPP has made it crystal clear that they will not have Schulz for the next half of the legislative period. Schulz has been heavily criticised for not sticking to the agreement and the same critics have claimed that he has made the representation of the European people a one-man-. These critics claim that “if Schulz gave the parliament a face, it is primarily his face”.

On the other hand, if Schulz id removed; whom is the EPP going to nominate? For an internal primary on 12 December candidates need to be found. However, they lack strong candidates:

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Antonio Tajani

So far the Italian Antonio Tajani, the French Alain Lamassoure and the Irish Mairead McGuinness have been mentioned as possible successors to Schulz. However Tajani is weakened by being close to former Italian PM Berlusconi, who has been disgraced by many scandals.  Also as former commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, he supposedly involved in the emission scandal and has already been summoned before the investigation committee. All of this means that he is seen as unenforceable in the parliament.

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Alain Lamassoure

The other candidates have similar shortcomings. Lamassoure has the reputation of being uncontrollable and prideful, some say thinking of himself as the French president. McGuinness, as a woman, current EP vice-president and a representative of a small EU Member State, seems to have the best chances of getting  a majority in the parliament. Nevertheless she is perceived as a rather plain Jane candidate and has not excited much attention.

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Mairead McGuinness

Currently, Schulz is fighting to forge a coalition with Liberals, Greens and EPP renegades. Yet it seems to be unlikely that he will cobble together enough votes without the backing of the EPP.

So what is next for him? Luckily another throne, perhaps a greater one, is up for grabs. In Berlin, some people would like to see Schulz as chancellor- the candidate for the SPD in place of the unpopular Sigmar Gabriel, to challenge Angela Merkel in the elections for the German parliament 2017 Regardless, it looks like Schulz has only begun to play.

For more by Bastian, click here.

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Portuguese Brexit? EU sanctions from the Portuguese perspective

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Lisbon, Capital of Portugal

 Elisa Abrantes

The term ‘Portuguese Brexit’ has been popping up in Portuguese media as of late. While this is a very unlikely scenario, I think that in the context of growing Euroscepticism and growing support for right-wing populist rhetoric in the EU, this merits some attention, especially given Portugal’s generally favourable attitude towards the EU.

The idea of a Portuguese Brexit was voiced by Catarina Martins, Chairperson of the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda party in Portugal, who is campaigning for a referendum to be held on Portugal’s membership of the EU. This situation arose in response to the possibility of sanctions being applied to Portugal and Spain for “lack of effective action” in dealing with levels of “excessive deficit”, which was discussed earlier this summer.

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The Euro is at the heart of Potugal’s EU woes

The decision to discuss the application of sanctions came after a meeting held by Ecofin, the EU’s economic and financial affairs council, as a result of Portugal and Spain’s failure to comply with rules stating that EU member state’s budget deficits should remain within 3% of GDP (gross domestic product). Had the commission decided to apply sanctions, these would consist of a fine that could go up to 0.2% of the country’s GDP, and would be the first case of sanctions being applied to a Eurozone country.

Feelings of outrage and injustice were sparked in Portugal and Spain as a result. In the case of Portugal, its deficit stood at 8.6% of GDP in 2010 and was reduced to just over 3% by 2015. This was the result of horrendous salary cuts and reforms which have characterized an economically precarious situation for Portuguese citizens in the past few years. António Costa, Portuguese prime-minister, argued that imposing sanctions on a country that is implementing demanding measures in order to reduce deficit is unjust and unreasonable, highlighting the unfavourable social and economic European context in which this situation took place. In a period of weak economic growth, perhaps asphyxiating that growth through sanctions is not the wisest move.

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A Portuguese Street

Furthermore, Portugal and Spain were by no means the first, nor the worst, member states to breach the 3% deficit rule. Fingers were pointed at France, with 11 violations, as well as Italy, and even Germany for surpassing this figure. The debate then turns to the EU’s (in)ability to challenge larger member states. As one Portuguese politician argues, it is inequality that is killing the EU. All this is not to say that the EU shouldn’t take its role of ‘refereeing’ countries that fail to keep within the established deficit seriously, but that discussions and punishments not be dished out arbitrarily, and not throw weaker member states under the bus.

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European Commission, Brussels

In the end, the commission decided not to go forward with the application of sanctions against the two countries, recognizing the immense sacrifice that has been made by the Iberian people in order to improve their countries economic situation. Both member states are now tasked with coming up with measures to ensure the deficit will be within the 3% limit by 2017, a process which is currently being tackled in Portugal. The situation is a little more difficult across the border in Spain, in the midst of the political gridlock taking place there, due to the fact that the provisional government is not able to make any kind of binding budgetary proposals, thereby assigning this task a more challenging nature.

While sanctions were not applied, bitterness towards the EU for its supposed unfair treatment remains. Situations like these only serve to increase criticism of an EU that is far removed from the lives and interests of European citizens, and will do little to remedy the issue of the perceived democratic deficit in EU politics. Perhaps the commission would do well to pay less attention to the well payed economists of the Eurogroup and instead find a way of decreasing the space between the EU and the ordinary European, . Unless it does this the EU risks  fuelling a domino-effect of campaigns for referenda on EU membership in the aftermath of Brexit, jeopardizing the entire European project in a period of great turbulence.

For more by Elisa Abrantes, click here

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