Never mind Brexit Bri­tain – next year will be a defin­ing one for the EU. For­mer Europe min­is­ter DE­NIS MACSHANE looks ahead to a mo­men­tous 2019

The New European - - Expertise - De­nis Macshane was the UK’S for­mer Min­is­ter of Europe and now writes on Eu­ro­pean pol­i­tics and pol­icy. His lat­est book is Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Bri­tain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tau­ris)

Once upon a time, Bri­tain used to be a ma­jor power in Brus­sels, ex­ert­ing great in­flu­ence over how the EU would de­velop. Those days have gone, though, and the UK will now have to watch as other coun­tries carry on mak­ing the big de­ci­sions. 2019 will be a big year in this re­spect, with May’s Eu­ro­pean par­lia­men­tary elec­tions set­ting the di­rec­tion of travel for the decade ahead.

De­spite Steve Ban­non’s bom­bast, the vote will not see the par­lia­ment taken over by the ul­tra-right. Be­fore the 2015 UK elec­tion, pro­fes­sor Matthew Good­win, an English aca­demic who writes on hardright pol­i­tics, pre­dicted that four or five UKIP can­di­dates would win seats in the House of Com­mons. In fact, just one was elected and two years later the party ob­tained only 1.8% of the vote. Good­win now in­sists that “na­tional pop­ulism looks set to re­main as a per­ma­nent fix­ture on the land­scape”. But when wasn’t it? The most suc­cess­ful na­tional pop­ulists since 1945 have been the French and Ital­ian com­mu­nist par­ties who ob­tained up to 30% of votes in elec­tions on the ba­sis of anti-elit­ist, pro­tec­tion­ist ap­peals, sim­i­lar to to­day’s pop­ulists. In­deed, the French com­mu­nist leader, Georges Mar­chais, as late as 1980, was rant­ing on tele­vi­sion that France should shut its bor­ders to Eu­ro­pean work­ers, just as anti-eu politi­cians do in Bri­tain to­day.

In­deed, Europe’s il­lib­eral pop­ulists have lit­tle in com­mon with one an­other other than tabloid de­nun­ci­a­tions of Brus­sels. Vik­tor Or­ban and Mat­teo Salvini are big fans of Vladimir Putin, while Poland’s Jarosław Kaczysnki de­spises him. Salvini wants north­ern Europe to take in more refugees, but he is get­ting short shrift in this area from Aus­tria’s coali­tion of right­ists and far-right­ists.

What we will see, though, is an in­crease in the num­ber of small par­ties from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, bring­ing a com­men­su­rate de­cline in the in­flu­ence of the big three group­ings: the cen­tre-right Eu­ro­pean Peo­ple’s Party, the Pro­gres­sive Al­liance of So­cial­ists and Democrats, and the lib­eral-cen­trist Al­liance of Lib­er­als and Democrats for Europe.

Klaus Welle, the Ger­man sec­re­tary gen­eral of the par­lia­ment, thinks the era when the big three groups con­trolled the chair­man­ship of com­mit­tees, carved up the pres­i­dency and de­cided pol­icy, will end and that par­lia­ment will be­come in­creas­ingly un­man­age­able. From France alone, there may be as many as 15 par­ties seek­ing to win MEP seats next May.

Along­side the well-pub­li­cised rise of the right, new po­lit­i­cal for­ma­tions based on eco­log­i­cal and civil so­ci­ety pol­i­tics have emerged. Poland, for in­stance, has sev­eral may­ors op­posed to Kaczyn­ski.

And while British news­pa­pers got ex­cited about the rise of the right-wing Swedish Democrats in the coun­try’s re­cent elec­tions, they didn’t seem to no­tice the in­crease in sup­port for the left-wing Vän­ster­par­tiet. There are 100 green and left-wing MEPS, and more than 20 not aligned to any group.

The man hop­ing to re­shape the par­lia­men­tary pic­ture in his own im­age – as he has done in his own coun­try – is the French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron. He needs 25 MEPS from at least seven coun­tries to form a new po­lit­i­cal group. This is achiev­able. Ac­cord­ing to his Eu­ro­pean sec­re­tary, Garance Pineau, Macron thinks the Eu­ro­pean par­lia­ment needs a shake-up. Too many MEPS are shop-worn ex-min­is­ters or re­gional party hacks put on a list to get a salary and ex­penses. This suits Macron, who is send­ing out his party of­fi­cials across Europe to try and find fu­ture MEPS who will join his group.

Macron is also a key player in the choice of the next pres­i­dent of the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion. I rep­re­sented the Labour Party on the ex­ec­u­tive of the Party of Eu­ro­pean So­cial­ists in 2009 when the first stir­rings of the so-called Spitzenkan­di­dat process – to chose a Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent – arose. The idea was that each party group would name a Spitzenkan­di­dat – or lead can­di­date – to head the list for the Eu­ro­pean par­lia­ment elec­tions. Who­ever got the most MEPS would get the Com­mis­sion pres­i­dency. At the time I was shocked that these ca­bals of MEPS could ca­su­ally an­nounce their new sys­tem with­out any con­sul­ta­tion with na­tional po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

The idea was to abol­ish the so-called demo­cratic deficit by mak­ing the most pow­er­ful EU of­fi­cial – the Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent – sub­ject to some kind of elec­toral man­date. But the first Spitzenkan­di­dat pres­i­dent to emerge was Jean-claude Juncker. As a long-time fi­nance and then prime min­is­ter in Lux­em­bourg and a con­sum­mate Brus­sels in­sider, he hardly rep­re­sented the au­then­tic demo­cratic choice of the peo­ple, or any kind of new voice or new pol­i­tics.

In fact, the level of par­tic­i­pa­tion in Eu­ro­pean elec­tions has de­creased at each vote since the first di­rect elec­tions in 1979. The hopes that a Eu­ro­pean demos would emerge, with the Eu­ro­pean par­lia­ment grow­ing in pres­ence and pro­file to be­come the Congress/na­tional As­sem­bly/houses of Par­lia­ment for 500 mil­lion EU ci­ti­zens has not hap­pened.

So far, the names in the run­ning for 2019’s Spitzenkan­di­dats have been less than stel­lar. Angela Merkel has pro­posed Man­fred Weber, from the CSU Bavar­ian party linked to her own CDU. Weber is an ex­pe­ri­enced MEP and leads the EPP group. But he has no na­tional po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence and has not held any re­gional or na­tional min­is­te­rial post. He has tried to win sup­port by re­vers­ing his pol­icy of pro­vid­ing cover for Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­ban, who many EPP con­ser­va­tives con­sider should be in one of the na­tion­al­ist par­lia­men­tary groups.

Fin­land’s for­mer prime min­is­ter, Alexan­der Stubb, is also seek­ing the EPP nom­i­na­tion. But his as­so­ci­a­tion with hard­line aus­ter­ity eco­nom­ics may not win much sup­port in south­ern Europe, where mass youth em­ploy­ment has soared.

Maroš Še­f­covic, a low-pro­file Slo­vak EU com­mis­sioner from the ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist SMER party, has put his name for­ward to be the Spitzenkan­di­dat for the So­cial­ists but it not clear if he will be en­dorsed. Michel Barnier is also men­tioned, but he re­mains chained to the Brexit mill­stone and can­not run un­til the is­sue is re­solved.

In short, with less than 12 months to go be­fore a new Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent takes over, no-one has the faintest idea who it might be.

In Brus­sels there is talk of Merkel mak­ing the move from Ber­lin. This time next year she will have just two years left, af­ter 15 years as Ger­man chan­cel­lor, un­less she is greedy for a fifth term. She has al­ways said her fi­nal po­lit­i­cal mis­sion is to put Europe on its feet. She would have a part­ner in Macron who could slot in François Villeroy Gal­hau, the Ger­manspeak­ing gov­er­nor of the Banque de France as pres­i­dent of the Eu­ro­pean Cen­tral Bank. He could grad­u­ally close the era of anti-growth, anti-jobs, mone­tary pol­icy which has caused such dam­age to south­ern Europe since the fi­nan­cial crash.

There is a sim­i­lar ab­sence of con­vinc­ing can­di­dates for posts like the pres­i­dency of the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil and the EU for­eign pol­icy rep­re­sen­ta­tive. With the fail­ure of the Spitzenkan­di­dat sys­tem for the Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent it is in­evitable that the nom­i­na­tions will emerge from wheeler-deal­ing be­tween EU27 pres­i­dents, chan­cel­lor and prime min­is­ters over the next six months. Macron may have a clear vi­sion for a re­formed, more in­te­grated Europe but he needs al­lies and peo­ple to run EU in­sti­tu­tions of much higher cal­i­bre than those cur­rently on of­fer.

While the British story on Europe is Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, a new chap­ter is open­ing in the way Europe is gov­erned and what its pol­icy pri­or­i­ties will turn out to be. But Bri­tain will play no part in Europe’s fu­ture di­rec­tion of travel, ex­cept as an ex­am­ple not to fol­low.

Pho­tos: Thierry Tron­nel/sygma via Getty Im­ages & Lu­dovic Marin/ Afp/getty Im­ages

SHAKE UP: 2019 will be a huge year for the EU re­gard­less of Brexit. Be­low, French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron

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