After President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker finished his third State of the European Union speech on the 13th of September, the thing that stood out to most people was the almost unchecked optimism in his message compared to his gloomy address last year, when – in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum – the general sense that the EU was heading to imminent disintegration seemed all too real. According to Juncker, the EU now has “wind in our sails” and he urged to “make the most of the momentum”. He did so by proposing a wide range of initiatives, some bolder than others, but all encapsulating this sense of optimism and determination. Nothing showed this more clearly than Juncker’s reluctance to talk about Brexit – the hour-long speech devoted only one minute to the painful issue. The looming threat of inertia and disaster that marked the State of the Union speech in 2016 seems to be replaced by a general sense of growth and hope. How can it be that the tables have turned so drastically in only a year? And is this truly the state of today’s Union?
The State of the Union speech is – in a true European fashion – a product of import. In the United States, the State of the Union is an annual event that is deeply ingrained in the American political tradition. In Europe it was only introduced in 2010, when the Lisbon Treaty stipulated that the President of the European Commission must address the European Parliament annually to reflect on and discuss the successes and failures of the European Union in the year before, in order to stimulate transparency and democracy in the European political arena. Continue reading “Blowing the wind into your own sails – Juncker’s State of the European Union”→
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Ever wonder how difficult it is to bring students from all over the world together in a single program spread over many universities and countries? Albert Meijer, coordinator with the Erasmus Mundus Euroculture program, gives some practical advice in ‘The Back Office”)
The German Bundestagswahl (parliamentary election) ended on 22 September. The centre-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union), led by Angela Merkel, won with 41.5%; the main opposition party SPD (Social Democratic Party) got only 25.7%, The Left (Die Linke) 8.6%, The Greens (Die Grünen) 8.4%, the FDP (Free Democratic Party), the AfD (Alternative for Germany) and Pirate Party (Piraten), got 4.8%, 4.7% and 2.2% respectively. But what can we tell from the German election?
Merkelmacht, The Merkel power
Other than CDU/CSU’s victory, it is worth noticing Angela Merkel’s winning for the third term as Bundes Chancellor, the Chancellor of Germany. Merkel was Germany’s first female Chancellor and let’s not forget that she began her political career in the East German party Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening). She was later in the male-dominated CDU. At the beginning of Merkel’s career, Germans were not aware of her power in solving political crises until scandals were exposed concerning crucial CDU/CSU members. Two notable examples were the corruption conspiracy scandal concerning the former President of Germany Christian Wulff, as well as plagiarism in the doctoral theses of former Federal Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan and former Minister of Defence Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Merkel first tried to keep them in their positions, yet due to the potent force of public opinion, she accepted their resignations.
“Merkel manages to grab the will of the people early enough to make appropriate political decisions, even if it means turning stance…”
The realistic approach of Merkel’s politics can be found not only in personnel assignments, but also in her political platform. “Merkel takes all of the energy out by bear-hugging her opponents and absorbing their issues,” said Andreas Kraemer, the director of the Ecologic Institute in Berlin. Merkel manages to grab the will of the people early enough to make appropriate political decisions, even if it means turning stance. For instance, she abided by a decision made earlier by her former coalition partners, the SPD. When the SPD was in government from 1998 to 2005, a law phasing out all nuclear power plants by 2021 was supported by the government, and the schedule was also accepted by the majority of German people. Yet, later in 2010, when Merkel was re-elected for the second term of Chancellor, she did a U-turn by prolonging the service of nuclear power plants, until a “bridge technology” is developed to rely on renewable energies. On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster erupted, and public opinion soon demanded instant cease on all nuclear power. Merkel made another U-turn, in order to save the CDU from mayhem in the state election of Baden-Wüttemberg, to shut down all nuclear power plants in the country in due course.
Merkel has been well known for her strong-stance on EU matters, especially during the Eurozone crisis; yet back in Germany, she was nicknamed Mutti (mummy). With Germany’s lead in economic achievements, and with a record low unemployment rate, the nation has gained enormous importance in European politics. This year the CDU won the greatest victory since the German reunification. After the election, Merkel said in her victory speech: “Heute wird gefeiert, ab morgen wieder gearbeitet” (Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work again.) The calm speech she made may have reflected her Mutti character.
Other than Merkel, there is still much to talk about concerning the election. First – the left wing parties.
Peer Steinbrück and the SPD’s failure
“Steinbrück’s immaturity in politics earned him various nicknames…”
SPD chair Peer Steinbrück’s performance in the TV election debate was widely reckoned as “not outstanding”. There was very little eye contact between him and the camera, probably due to the fact that he failed to locate where the cameras were. Steinbrück also failed to gain popularity throughout the election campaign, with 25% of an approval rate compared to Merkel’s 63% in April 2013. On a more personal level,you don’t have to be a political scientist to tell the difference between Peer Steinbrück and Angela Merkel. Unlike Merkel’s Mutti character, Peer Steinbrück is known to be outspoken, but was also undermined by a number of blunders he made. For instance, he commented that the Chancellor salary was too low, and the German public interpreted his comment as a potential self pay-rise if he is elected. There is also the issue with Steinbrück’s personal income. He is reported to have made €1.25 million between November 2009 and July 2012 for public speeches, even though he was receiving a salary as an elected member of parliament at the time. His immaturity in politics earned him various nicknames: Pannen-Peer, Problem-Peer and Peerlusconi (see fig. 3), after the former Italian Prime Minister.
As for the number of seats, the SPD gained only 30.5%, compared to the CDU’s 40.5%. The CDU won a remarkable victory over the SPD. This could be explained by the fact that many SPD supporters did not cast their vote, and they did not want to vote for The Left or the CDU, nor did they trust the SPD to do a better job than the current CDU-led government. In fact, although the turnout rate of this year’s elections is higher than last year – 71.5% compared to 70.8% in 2009, it is the second lowest in history.
The SPD became passive after the elections. On the one hand if it chooses to form a grand coalition with the CDU, it could lose some loyal supporters, and even worse, history may repeat itself as in the 2009 elections, where the SPD was marginalised by the CDU; but if the SPD refuses such a coalition, it could be blamed for being a troublemaker. The SPD is indeed in a dilemma.
Between Red-Green-Red, the SPD, Die Grünen and Die Linke
The CDU/CSU needs a coalition partner. We may ask ourselves if there is any possibility of forming a coalition between the Left, the SPD and the Greens. The answer is: highly unlikely, due to three main reasons:
Technical difficulties. First, Die Linke was separated from the SPD in 2007 after former SPD chair Oskar Lafontaine left the SPD in 2005; which explains the friction between SPD and Linke supporters. Therefore, even though both parties have left tendencies, there are still clear differences between them, especially concerning the Eurozone crisis. In fact, there was such coalition between the three parties during Landtagswahl (state elections) in 2009 and 2010, and it was indeed a threat to the CDU, yet no attempts of forming a coalition between the three parties were ever seen on a parliamentary level. This is probably due to the fact that they all worry that their own support rate may drop after doing so.
Die Linke and the Stasi’s past. The Left has certain historical connections with the East German Secret Service, where several members were connected with the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, Ministry for State Security), which made the party unfavourable among liberal voters.
Lack of popular support. According to opinion polls in 2005 and in 2008, most Germans didn’t wish to see a Red-Green-Red coalition. Those approving it was only 10%, and 67% regarded it as a bad idea. In fact, most Germans prefer a grand coalition to any other coalition.
How about the right-wing parties?
The FDP’s epic fail
In the party’s 65-year history, this is the first time the FDP got kicked out of the parliament. Considering the fact that the party actually produced some chancellors in earlier times, this year’s election was indeed an epic fail for the FDP. Philipp Rösler, the former party chair, and also vice chancellor of Germany, is now jobless. He resigned after the failure.
“The first time the FDP got kicked out of the parliament…in 65 years!”
If we compare the figures of approval rate of the CDU/CSU and the FDP, we would notice a sharp drop for the FDP; it was 14.6% in 2009, and only 4.8% this year, while the CDU/CSU had 33.8%, and 41.5% this year. No wonder so many critics commented that the FDP was being sacrificed by the Merkel-led CDU. The same fate may happen again to Merkel’s next coalition partner, and the FDP may plan its revenge in the next elections.
The AfD’s shocking success in its first elections
On small parties, I have to mention the Euro-sceptic AfD – a new political party established barely more than half a year ago. The AfD gained a surprising 4.7% of the vote in its first-time elections. The AfD has a rather narrow agenda when compared to other parties. With its strong anti-euro stance, the party’s main agenda is the elimination of the euro and the restoration of a strong German national currency. The success of the AfD has shown that many Germans are indeed unhappy with the euro, and despite Germany’s participation in Europe’s debt crisis, the problem of explaining the euro to German people remains. The performance of the AfD in the future is definitely worth observing.
So now what?
The victory of the CDU/CSU has shown that most Germans approve Merkel’s conservative economic policy. Meanwhile, the Merkel government has begun the negotiations on forming a coalition with the Greens, or a grand coalition with the SPD. The Greens later turned down the invitation, leaving the SPD the only one reasonable option. Despite the dilemma faced by the SPD, it is clear that the Social Democrats will demand concessions in exchange for governing together with the CDU. The SPD would also wish to introduce minimum wage and a better social welfare system. The SPD and The Greens would also use their advantage of seats in the Bundesrat (Upper House) to counter Merkel’s government when necessary.
Many may thus note that the conventional definition of ”left wing parties” in European politics, especially that of the British, does not really apply to major left wing parties in Germany. The conventional definition of ”right wing parties” does not really apply in Germany either. For instance, when comparing the election platforms between the SPD and the CDU/CSU, we would not find so many differences, especially concerning Eurozone issues. The right wing’s new star – the AfD – has nothing but opposition towards the euro, but not towards the European integration process. Their country being a founding member of the EU, German politicians are in general supportive of the idea of European integration, and therefore support the Eurozone austerity measures. So there is a tendency of major political parties shifting to the centre. For the left and far right parties, redefining their own stances could be a major challenge in the coming years, especially for the right wing FDP and AfD.
“Merkel’s victory may give Germany an upper hand in the negotiations for EU reform…”
It is worth noticing if Merkel will reinstate the plan for reforming the EU, a plan which she did not emphasise much during the election campaign in order to gain maximum domestic support. Merkel’s victory may give Germany an upper hand in the negotiations for EU reform, especially in response to the UK’s reform claim.
One interesting thing I have noticed is that both Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and François Hollande, president of France, immediately sent their congratulations to Merkel after the CDU/ CSU’s victory. The heads of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) all kept silent. For Germany it is very likely that it will remain the most important economic and political leader in EU for some years.
Wong Tsz, from Hong Kong, moved to Europe for MA Euroculture (2010-12) after obtaining his BA in Language and Translation. Currently, he’s a PhD student in Musicology under DFG Research Group ‘Expert Cultures from the 12th to the 16th Century’. Wong Tsz played in various orchestras in Hong Kong and in Europe, including the Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra, Open University of Hong Kong Orchestra, Göttingen University Orchestra, Groningen Students’ Orchestra MIRA, and currently in Academic Orchestra Göttingen AOV. He’s not only keen on playing music but is actively engaged in academic research. His Master’s thesis gives an in-depth study of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under the scope of Orientalism theory by Edward Said. His current PhD project ‘Matteo Ricci in East West Music Exchange’ gives a detailed analysis to trace the early models of music exchange between China and Europe in 16th century.