Tuesday 14 July 2009

Europe doesn't need a Pro-European Alliance in the EP

Guy Verhofstadt has spoken of the need for a "strong pro-European alliance" in the European Parliament for this term. He said:

"The three largest groups in the European Parliament announced today their commitment to pro-European values and their intention to seek a political consensus at the heart of the European Union in order to respond in a coherent and united way to the multiple challenges that Europe's citizens are now facing in terms of employment and financial security."

Now the only thing you can say about pro-Europeanism when it comes to "employment and financial security", it that there should be some degree of EU involvement in these policy areas. The problem is that "pro-Europeanism" either amounts to the constitutional status quo, or a vague degree of increased integration. "Pro-Europeanism" in itself doesn't provide any ideological clue to what kind of policies a coalition will enact - what, for instance, is Europeanism's stance on the level of workers rights that's appropriate to an economy in recession? Verhofstadt has confused a unified cross-party pro-European alliance for some sort of Coalition from the Napoleonic Wars that, if it held together long enough, would put an end to the spectre of Euroscepticism. But it can't work like that.

Grand Coalitions aren't necessarily a bad thing; grand coalitions can make good governments, and they provide political stability in a country. But they need a common programme for government. In the EP, the executive is separate from the legislature so there's no need for a fixed or agreed programme of government to provide stability. So this alliance is not strictly necessary on a long-term basis. Also, since the EP's say over constitutional matters is extremely limited, basing a coalition on what is essentially a non-issue - apart from non-binding reports and the occasional vote on treaties or enlargements - isn't exactly a strong foundation. The rhetoric of Pro-European unity will paper over the divisions on the practical issues that the EP has to deal with in its day-to-day life. It hardly helps the EP's image to have such an alliance - wouldn't it be better to project it as a mature arena for political debate that scrutinises legislation and the Commission well?

If Verhofstadt wants to win more hearts and minds to "pro-Europeanism", he needs to draw in the public to the Brussels Bubble and spark interest and participation in EP politics. An outwardly cosy coalition in control of Parliament won't do this. Political competition encourages participation and interest, so it shouldn't be suppressed. The alliance - which I suspect will be more rhetorical than real, except for important votes, such as the Commission President vote - will give credibility to the ECR's strange claim to be the "first real opposition". For several reasons, the ECR is just not that significant, and will probably collapse at some point. Open political competition will make party politics in the EP matter more and if this perception increases among the public, then it would be more of a threat to the ECR than attempts to marginalise them. After all, the ECR are already having difficulties maintaining coherence, and it's only their first day!

It's also bad politics for ALDE. Ruling out coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis ties the hands of the EPP, since the only other option it has is a coalition with PASD or PASD and ALDE. This weakens ALDE's position as the EPP and PASD can do deals without ALDE's input. While it strengthens the hand of the PASD when it comes to coalition politics, in terms of electoral politics it will mean that they are not playing the oppositional role well or positioning themselves properly for the next elections.

Finally, this line of politics already goes against what ALDE and the PASD want - Barroso has used this line of reasoning before to try and brush away calls for presenting a programme for the next 5 years and to downplay the significance of the lack of a contest for his post. He said:

"I am in favour of a political Europe, but I am against partisan political confrontation in Europe. If we are a supra-national reality, we need to be supra-partisan politicians. ...I am against political parties’ artificial dramatisation... We must talk about Europe positively, because what most encourages eurosceptics in times of crisis is the pessimism of pro-Europeans."

Surely the worst thing "pro-Europeanism" could do is adopt the politics of Barroso?


  1. Eurocentric,

    When you say that pro-Europeanism either amounts to the constitutional status quo, or a vague degree of increased integration, it may be correct for parts of the mainstream groups, but hardly for Guy Verhofstadt, the author of The United States of Europe.

    I believe that the basic views on how the European Union should develop and the choices concerning EP reports are closer than your blog post seems to suggest.

    The Conservatives and (hm) Reformists have slammed the door in the face of the mainstream groups, so there is little in the way of constructive engagement there.

    They have more in common with the nationalist and rejectionist left (not much different from the Gaullists and the Communists of the 1950s).

    One or more grand coalitions are necessary in the European Parliament, if it wants to amend legislative proposals. Better a stable one than shifting sands under current rules, I suppose, although I see a real parliamentary democracy as the long term goal.

  2. I accept that Verhofstadt's vision of Europeanism is a much stronger and clearer one than that of the parties in general. Still, this is a constitutional vision, within which politics takes/would take place, not a vision that informs us much on policy content.

    There's nothing wrong with a coalition for constitutional issues, but I stand by my argument that mature parliamentary political conflicit on practical issues have a greater chance of Europeanizing debate and bringing the EU closer to citizens (and aiding pro-Europeanism's cause) than some sort of "national wartime coalition"-type alliance of the main parties.

    You're right that the ECR have burnt their political bridges and made themselves more politically isolated than the many political factors affecting them would make them out to be. But this political constellation could boost their image as the "opposition" and (wrongly) help them portray their original claims as valid. The best way of combating the ECR from "pro-Europeanism's" point of view is to show the ECR as being self-isolating, and as not partisipating in the interests of the constituents it represents - and for a vague, impractical, political point.

    The EP needs to be seen as an arena for political debate and decision making that matters to citizens - and that they shouldn't waste their vote on insignificant grandstanders such as the ECR.

    Real parliamentary democracy should be a goal now, and I see it as a means of making the EU work better and of bringing the EU closer to citizens. You have called for more openness and transparency and for a more responsive EU - this requires more "normal politics". Ideas, ideologies and visions need to match up with policies, and the politics of Europe must be more transparent and accessable to citizens - and political contest does this. It gives the media something to report on, political clashes explain positions and policy, personalities become more focal and identifiable.

    Now, even in those conditions a grand coalition could arise anyway. And stability in the EP is good, and there's nothing wrong with grand coalitions. But we must recognise that few people are interested or identify with constitutional issues, and the policies and politics of the everyday world must be the basis of politics at the European level (though relevant to the EU's competences, of course).