On Monday, April 29th, the first official debate of the European elections took place in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Organised by Politico with their usual partners, it featured five out of the six main groups running for the upcoming European Parliament elections, which are set to happen from May 23rd to 26th.
This debate was meant in every way to target young voters, for a number of good reasons. One of them being that young people are currently getting more and more involved in politics worldwide, be it through the Fridays for Future demonstrations or other “channels”. Therefore, the three main themes of this debate were picked accordingly: Digital Europe, Sustainable Europe, and the Future of Europe. Here are some observations pertaining to the content – but also the general atmosphere impression.
Stable Leader: Frans Timmermans (S&D)
Very honestly, Frans Timmermans was the most well-prepared candidate for this debate. He knew all the topics thoroughly, he was able to articulate specific proposal for each main question, and he did not wasted time on any unnecessary argument. However, it is easy to be in this position for someone who is currently dealing with all these topics as Vice-President of the European Commission. Slight advantage that he definitely seized. Showing leadership at every level, he called for Europeans to “vote Green”, reminding everyone that “there is no competition”. Indeed, the Dutch politician chose to be transparent about his intentions in case he was to become the next President of the European Commission: alliance with the Greens, the Left, and an open-door to negotiations with ALDE. Timmermans did not forget to build on the momentum created by the Spanish general elections on Sunday (28.04) evening – including regarding gender equality, which seems to be among the top priorities of all five candidates.
Freshly arrived in Uppsala, my mind filled with the idealized Swedish role model, it is with great surprise that I learn that Sweden is now facing the rise of populism and Euroscepticism. Rumours has been the situation in Sweden was slowly decaying but I had not realized the extent this phenomenon had taken in this country often considered as the peace haven of Europe, until I arrived and witnessed the tensions surrounding the legislative elections. After France and the Front National, the UK and UKIP, Austria and the Freedom party of Austria, Italy and the Five Star Movement, it is now Sweden’s turn to deal with Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats party. Indeed, the Swedish elections that occurred on the September 9 has for the first time seen the everlasting left-wing Social Democrats party’s monopoly on the government endangered by nationalism and anti-immigration ideologies.
The country has gradually seen the rise of populism ever since the beginning of the 2000’s, following the first arrivals of asylum seekers coming from Iraq. From then, the number of asylum seekers has constantly increased up until 2015 when it reached its peak with 162,877 asylum seekers[i] entering the kingdom, before the government changed the immigration procedure, making it tougher. Sweden, almost unharmed by the 2008 economic crisis, remained prosper and did not seem to be the most fertile environment for such a breakthrough from the nationalist factions.
To have a better understanding of the current political landscape and the point of view of a Swede on this situation, I had an interview with our teacher Lars Löfquist, doctor in Theology, director of studies in Uppsala for the Euroculture programme as well as two other programmes concerning Humanitarian Action. Starting from this, I was able to draw some observations that could explain how Sweden got to this point, what is the current situation and what is to expect in the coming weeks. Continue reading “The Swedish Elections: The End of the European Role Model?”→
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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.