Eurosceptics fail to bloc reelection of german socialist martin schulz as presidentWednesday, July 2, 2014
Fringe parties go mainstream at new EU Parliament
BRUSSELS — It is more raucous, more anti-immigration and more sceptical of the European Union: welcome to the 28-nation bloc’s new Parliament.
Expressing resurgent nationalist sentiments and distrust with how the EU is run, voters in May handed almost one in three seats to parties seeking to slash its powers: some want tough immigration curbs and to re-erect borders, others seek to dismantle the euro currency or want to see their country leaving the union altogether.
In the European Parliament’s constituting plenary session yesterday in France’s Strasbourg, lawmakers from Britain’s Eurosceptic, anti-immigration UK Independence Party turned their backs on the assembly while an orchestra performed the European anthem, part of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
“National democracy and EU membership are incompatible,” thundered the freshly elected UKIP lawmaker Paul Nuttall. “We will do everything we can to free ourselves from this corrupt institution.”
Nuttall and his peers used to be radical voices on the fringe of the political mainstream, but that very concept was shattered by the May 27 elections, when voters disappointed by the EU and persistently high unemployment across the bloc handed former fringe parties resounding victories. UKIP and France’s far-right National Front came in first in their countries.
The European Parliament was long derided as a mere talking shop, but it has steadily gained power and its approval is now needed for all major EU legislation — ranging from financial market regulation to decisions on how big warning signs on cigarette packs have to be.
But the Parliament’s 751 lawmakers fall short of the clout of national legislatures in two important ways: they cannot propose new laws — a role that the EU’s executive Commission fulfils — and it has only limited say over the EU’s budget, whose outlines are decided by the EU governments.
The 200-odd eurosceptic lawmakers, however, will not only make debates livelier but will also have an impact on policies as leaders scratch their heads seeking to reconnect with an ever more disenchanted European electorate.
The emboldened radical parties will also use their EU offices to put more pressure on their respective national governments, said Janis A. Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre think-tank.
In the European Parliament, however, their political clout is diluted by the fact that they have very different agendas — with some of them being as suspicious of each other as they all are toward the EU’s powers.
UKIP seeks to make its lawmakers “redundant” by pushing Britain to leave the EU, France’s National Front seeks the abolishment of the euro currency shared by 18 nations and advocates re-erecting national borders to crack down on immigration. Italy’s five-Star Movement, led by comic Beppe Grillo, seeks more direct democracy, while Greece’s leftist Syriza says it’s pro-European at heart but seeks a very different Europe.
“They aren’t a coherent group,” Emmanouilidis said, adding that “parliament will find a way to work; there will be a grand coalition of pro-European forces” running the show.
Schulz re-elected president
That was apparent yesterday when the two biggest mainstream groups — the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats — easily re-elected German Social Democrat Martin Schulz as the assembly’s president with 409 out of 723 votes cast. Schulz also served as president from 2012 until earlier this year.
The extension of the German lawmaker’s term follows the parliament’s success in getting its candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, nominated as European Commission President and shows lawmakers’ determination to have a greater say in Europe.
“Today, no-one can get around the EU Parliament,” said Schulz, a former bookstore manager from a small town near the German-Belgian border.
Guy Verhofstadt, a leading lawmaker of the pro-business Liberals, who also supported Schulz, said the answer to the voter backlash in May must be reforms, but toward an even stronger EU.
“It is not by retreating behind national borders and populist prejudices that we will create a better, fairer and more competitive Europe that can stimulate growth and lay the basis for sustainable job creation,” he said.
The new legislature will also have to ratify an ambitious free-trade deal between the European Union and the United States if negotiations between Brussels and Washington are successful.
Schulz said that the parliament’s success in introducing a system of lead candidates from European political groups for EU elections in May marked a leap forward. Those changes resulted in Juncker’s appointment as Commission president, despite the opposition of British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The European Parliament’s gain in authority comes at the expense of individual EU countries, which in the past had a free hand to set the course of legislation or decide policy in areas such as trade. That has changed since EU lawmakers gained more authority to influence legislation under reforms that came into effect in late 2009.
Herald with AP, Reuters