Laffan: ‘governing Europe is not for the faint-hearted’

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current features, Features

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After delivering her State of the Union address, Brigid Laffan, Director the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and the Global Governance Program, watched closely as Europe redrew the political maps with radical colours. In Britain, France, Greece and Denmark populist parties stormed to victory while the established order floundered. Meanwhile, Brussels looks set to endure weeks of negotiations between the Council and the Parliament to appoint a new president of the European Commission, testing the significance of the Spitzenkandidat. So how does Laffan analyse the new political landscape?

In the parliament, Laffan expects the established parties to be hemmed into a “grand coalition” to keep the machine alive. “A majority in the parliament is 376 votes, the two largest parties alone will have 398 and if you add the liberals it’s 468. These are very comfortable majorities.” Laffan calls this “the only option” but is keen to stress that this is not going to be ‘business as usual’. A coalition could easily provide the populist newcomers with a political and rhetorical opportunity to further juxtapose themselves against the status quo, “It leaves all the rest of the political space to the anti-establishment eurosceptic parties and they’re going to use this space.”

Since 2009, the eurosceptics have reached new levels of influence in their own countries and they will all be keen to translate this into political power and move beyond the status of the protest vote. This time, according to Laffan, MEPs with domestic ambitions will be under pressure to achieve more than remonstration at home and disruption in Brussels, “La Pen wants to appear as if she could govern France and so whatever she does has to appear serious. Nigel Farage wants to have seats in Westminster, whatever he does has to be serious. I don’t think they have the luxury any longer of being the exotic additions to the hemicycle.”

In the meantime the EU must resolve the problem of the Spitzenkandidat and decide how best to juggle the will of the Parliament with the priorities of the European Council. Live televised debates were held throughout the campaign between the candidates representing the main groups in the European Parliament, with the implied notion of the triumphant emissary becoming president of the European Commission. That would clear a path for Jean-Claude Juncker, put forward by the victorious European People’s Party and supported by Angela Merkel and the German press. But some critics are describing this as a power grab by the parliamentary groups, who would need to see Juncker approved by the European Council before seeing him assume office. Laffan considers Juncker’s appointment highly unlikely, because it would represent a remarkable surrender of power by the European Council, “If they concede now they’ve conceded forever.”

Major obstacles for the ‘old school federalist’ Juncker, include the figure of David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who has promised to reform and redefine the relationship between Britain and Brussels. He is strongly opposed to Juncker, who is firmly in favour of greater integration, said to represent the status-quo and unlikely to be enthusiastic about Cameron’s vision for Europe. Speaking a few hours after the election results were announced, the British Prime Minister loudly lamented the EU as “too big, too bossy and too interfering”. French President, Francois Hollande wasn’t far behind, describing Brussels as “remote and incomprehensible.” The two leaders, each recently stunned by electoral humiliation at the hands of eurosceptic MEPs, will now want to be considered as opposed to any further integration. The European Council has a blocking minority, meaning they can keep Juncker locked out of the commission and hire someone else, if enough of them want to do so. At the same time the European Council needs the Parliament’s approval, which creates a recipe for political stalemate. According to Laffan, this would mean that the parliament would have to be compensated with a right wing appointment, at the head of either the Council or the Commission, if Juncker were to be rejected.   

Laffan knows that whoever takes the big jobs at the EU isn’t going to be able to relax, certainly not in the political climate left behind by the elections in May. The major protagonists might not have changed but the chairs in Brussels aren’t quite as comfortable as they used to be. Incumbency has become more challenging than ever before, “the question is, how do you govern today in Europe without the electorate kicking you? It’s not for the faint hearted.”

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