25 October 2018
A political crisis looms.
By Neil Tidmarsh
This week, Matteo Salvini (Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-EU, pro-Putin, populist League) dropped heavy hints about his ambition to become president of the European Commission when Jean-Claude Juncker steps down next year. (In the same week, as it happens, the independent MEP Allesandra Mussolini – who defends the memory of her grandfather il duce, the original fascist – announced that she is preparing to transfer her support from Forza Italia to Salvini and his League.) How likely is it that the EU could give the whole of mainland Europe a leader from the extreme right? The answer, rather alarmingly, is ‘quite likely’.
Who chooses the president of the European commission (the EU’s executive, which drafts and enforces all EU laws) and how is he or she chosen? No one is absolutely certain – the EU’s treaties are astonishingly vague about this absolutely crucial issue – but in 2014, the EU parliament devised the “spitzenkandidat” system whereby the biggest pan-European political group in the parliament nominates its candidate who is then confirmed by the European Council (i.e. the leaders of the EU countries), a vote in the parliament finally placing him or her in the job.
Elections for the EU parliament are due next May, and they may well result in the far-right being the biggest pan-European political group in the EU parliament. The political landscape in Europe at the moment certainly points that way. In Germany, AfD is the second largest party and the official opposition. In France, Marine le Pen went head-to-head with Emmanuel Macron in last year’s presidential elections; her Front National party had emerged neck and neck with the two mainstream parties in earlier elections. In Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party is in power as half of a coalition government. In Italy, the League is in power with the populist Five Star Movement. In Hungary, Victor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz is in power. In Poland, the governing nationalist Law and Justice party is defiantly determined to bring the media and the judiciary under political control. In Spain this week, polls revealed an astonishing growth in support for the hitherto obscure right-wing party Vox.
These parties are already building connections and alliances. Matteo Salvini and Marine le Pen have agreed to form an alliance for next May’s elections. Vox has links to Marine le Pen’s National Rally (the re-branded National Front) and to Viktor Orban’s Fidesz. Steve Bannon is in Europe working hard to bring all the continent’s far-right parties together.
So, by the time Jean-Claude Juncker stands down later in the year, an extreme-right block in the European parliament may well be in a position to nominate the candidate to replace him.
Would that candidate be accepted? Would the European Council – the leaders of the EU member states – confirm such a candidate? Until now, the Council has more or less rubber-stamped the parliament’s candidate, for fear of appearing anti-democratic. Many EU leaders thought that Juncker was the wrong man for the job, and resented having him forced upon them by the parliament, but only two of them – Cameron and one other – were prepared to vote against the parliament’s choice. But even if the Council of Leaders was prepared to defy parliament, the EU would find itself plunged into a severe political crisis; such a confrontation between the Council and the Parliament would shake the EU to the core.
Earlier this year, the leaders of the EU member states met in Brussels to try to put together an alternative to the “spitzenkandidat” system. They believe that it should be possible to take the initiative away from the parliament (those vague EU treaties simply state that the EU leaders choose the European Commission’s president “taking into account the elections to the European parliament” but the parliament must give its consent). However, nothing was announced. The parliament opposes any initiative by the Council for a change in the system as undemocratic and lacking in transparency, anyway, and any such initiative would itself no doubt precipitate a serious political crisis.
If an extreme-right candidate did indeed secure the presidency of the Commission, he or she would inevitably attempt to “re-shape” the EU. Would the EU’s institutions – the Commission itself, for instance, or the European Court of Justice – be robust enough to resist the imposition of a neo-fascist road-map for mainland Europe? Two recent episodes would suggest a pessimistic answer.
The Selmayr affair showed that the Commission can be easily rail-roaded, bullied, wrong-footed and dictated to by its president. Jean-Claude Juncker outraged many MEPs by rushing through the appointment of his chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, as the European Commission’s new secretary general. He was accused of by-passing established procedures by forcing the appointment on the 28 commissioners as a fait accompli, a “palace coup”, an “arrangement among friends”.
The EU Ombudsman investigating the controversy identified four instances of maladministration by the Commission and admitted that the affair had damaged public trust in EU institutions. But what were the consequences of her report? There were none. Was Selmayr removed? No. Was Juncker penalised? No. The impotence of the parliament’s watch-dog can only have further damaged public trust in EU institutions.
Last month, European Union judges supported the European Parliament in agreement that MEPs expenses should not be open to public scrutiny. Each MEP can – and often does – receive over €100,000 (tax free) in expenses each year without having to account for a single cent of it, without having to produce a single receipt, invoice or any other document. (And that’s only a part of the allowances and entitlements an MEP can claim each year.) They don’t see why they should allow public scrutiny of this use of public money, and the European Court of Justice ruled in their favour, supporting their “refusal to grant access to documents relating to subsistence allowances, travel expenses and parliamentary assistance allowances”.
Considering the pride the EU takes in being a rules-based organisation, Brussels has a surprising history of cutting corners, of by-passing democratic and constitutional niceties (we’re still waiting for that vote we were promised on the EU constitution back in 2005) and of ignoring calls for transparency and democratic accountability. Such a history suggests that Brussels could be a sadly fertile ground for an extremist take-over. The current political climate in Brussels is liberal; but are the EU’s institutions strong enough to ensure that it remains liberal?
Events next year may well put that question to the test. The EU has had a financial crisis and an immigration crisis, crises (largely of its own making) which it still hasn’t overcome. Next year, a third crisis threatens – a political crisis – and it may prove to be the most dangerous of the lot.