EP post-Brexit: the End of Centre-Left Majority

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Brexit is looming on the European Parliament. A few days ago the EP’s research service published a simulation showing how the Parliament changes on 1 February 2020, the day EU shrinks to 27 member states.

The main consequence for the delicate balance in the fragmented Parliament is the end of the minimal centre-left majority in the EP. The S&D-RE-Greens-GUE majority in the Parliament of 751 MEPs is just 376. Now in the re-calibrated Parliament this majority shrinks to a minority of 351 out of 705 MEPs.

It may not matter as much to the daily politics of the European Parliament as majorities are formed on ad hoc basis between the seven political groups. But the tiny centre-left majority was clearly in the back on the minds of the European decision makers over the past months: from the election of Mr Sassoli as the Parliament’s president and re-election of Emily O’Reilly as European Ombudsman to the EPP’s internal sentiment that the “left” had an alternative to the “grand coalition” and hence could be outvoted. Also, the cordon sanitaire against the PiS politicians was possible mainly because of the left-wing pressure.

Now the S&D is no longer in the driving seat choosing the majorities in the Strasbourg hemicycle. The “grand coalition” behind the von der Leyen Commission remains dominant and the three elements of it, EPP, S&D and Renew Europe, have no more reasons to double-guess their coalition partners.

Fidesz’s Future

Unless new developments, naturally, take place. In the next weeks or months the probable departure of the Fidesz MEPs from the EPP and their potential alliance with the ECR would bring new dynamics on the right-side of the Parliament.

Fidesz has 12 MEPs and the 13th Hungarian EPP MEP is György Hölvényi, a member of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, a satellite party of Fidesz. Hence there is a slim chance for Mr Hölvényi to remain in the EPP.

Still, 12 or 13 Hungarians is a major force. Hungarians joining the ECR (62 MEPs post-Brexit) would push the group’s size above the Greens (66 MEPs post-Brexit) putting the new ECR on a virtual parity with the Salvini-Le Pen group Identity and Democracy (ID, 76 MEPs post-Brexit).

This could be the new dynamics interesting to watch: between the EPP (187 MEPs post-Brexit, 174 without Fidesz), ECR and ID, as the border lines between the three groups are not set in stone. Not too long time ago Alternative for Germany (now an important member of ID) collaborated with ECR and Law and Justice tested waters to join the EPP. Between ID and ECR there is a competition for who is the “opposition” to the European mainstream. Inclusion of Fidesz into ECR provides this group a new momentum.

A year ago the main fear of pro-European forces was an influx into the Parliament of anti-Europeans who would dominate the landscape. This has not happened, but a tactical alliance between Fidesz, ECR and ID would bring them to over 150 MEPs. Such a united front of the “opposition” remains and will remain for the rest of the term a nightmare for many of the pro-European MEPs.

EPP in Crisis

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“The EPP is dead”! Did Viktor Orbán plan a hostile take-over of the party? What are the plans for the future? Welcome to rainy Zagreb, where the European People’s Party holds its congress 2019.
Hashtag #EPPZagreb

The Croatian capital is cold and rainy this time of the year. Grim are the moods in the great hall of Arena Zagreb, covered with great speeches on the main stage. Angela Merkel comes, her star shines among the 2000+ delegates, yet you can sense the deadline to her rule in Berlin. There are more people of a decaying glory here, and a few upcoming stars, too. Ursula von der Leyen is relaxed and multilingual. Sebastian Kurz is glowing. Donald Tusk is elected new leader. This is a grand theatre and the main play is to put a good face on a bad game.

Elections won, but

Every five years since 2009 there are fewer EPP MEPs sitting in the Strasbourg hemicycle. Non only since last May there are only 182 MEPs affiliated with the EPP. The party lost a ruling majority in the Parliament alongside the Social-Democrats. For decades the two, EPP and S&D provided for a stable majority. “It takes two to tango”, but how to learn the dance with a third, or a fourth partner?

The electoral crisis is clear and debated behind the scenes. There is another crisis underneath: the identity challenge. In a moment of weakness one MEP cries, “The EPP is dead“, and asks not to be named.

Feet of clay

The EPP is still the largest political group in the European Parliament, but the future is not looking easy. “If you win the elections, you can’t say you lose,” soberly reminds me the Irish MEP Sean Kelly quoting the EPP leaders, new and old, Tusk and Daul. Michael Gahler, a German MEP, also praises his home party: “We retained political leadership on the European level. Where are the Socialists and the Liberals in their positioning?

Mr Gahler is not alone, many people here think that the EPP is the best organized party in Europe. Over 2,000 delegates come to Zagreb to discuss new leaders, but also to debate and decide the agenda. Issues such as the climate and technological challenges, enlargement, international policy in Eastern Europe, transatlantic relations and the situation in the Middle East – all of these are important matters for the oldest European political party.

But what does the EPP want to be in the third decade of the 21st century? How to regain voters? It must have been difficult to swallow that Europeans like to vote in European elections, but not as much for the EPP. “We are not popular with the voters“, complains one EPP staffer, as if it was the voter who was the problem. Ideas are welcomed.

How to simultaneously and effectively resist populism of the far right, but also the internal populism from the Hungarian party Fidesz, is the unanswered question here in Zagreb. The Slovenian Janez Janša, former prime minister, says simply: “Punishing the most successful party in the group would not make any sense“. Last spring Fidesz scored 53 percent in Hungary.

The fears

The electoral result of other EPP parties outside Hungary is not as positive. “Populism destroys us from the right and the left,” tells me the leading Bavarian MEP Monika Hohlmeier, member of the Parliament since 2009. Not only the EPP members’ share of the Strasbourg chamber has fallen from 36 percent to 24 percent in the same decade, the number of EPP members of the European Council is down from 12 to 9.

What is more, the internal dynamics is shifting, too. As of May, the majority of EPP MEPs are Central European politicians. In countries such as Italy and France, local EPP parties suffered heavy defeats. In Zagreb Silvio Berlusconi walks surrounded by a smaller crowd of journalists, an echo of old glory. The French party was relegated to the third position. In both populous countries the extreme right populists replaced the EPP parties as the main right-wing force in the national public space.

The EPP’s nightmare is this: in Germany the AfD is gaining ground, in Spain the extreme VOX party is fast catching up with the centre-right, and it is possible that in Poland the Civic Platform (PO) – the party of Donald Tusk – will fight the newly united Left to maintain the position of the main opposition party. A few years down the line the EPP members could be relegated to no. 3 or worse in all of the most populous EU member states.

Orbán’s hostile takeover?

How to effectively respond to the challenges of a changing world? Last spring seven EPP members demanded to remove Fidesz from the EPP. Hungarians were suspended and were not invited to the meetup in Croatia. The only Hungarians in the Arena are the Hungarian journalists investigating when the throwing out will happen, if ever.

In Zagreb, one could hear the whisper of Orbán’s intent to make a “hostile takeover” of the EPP from the centre-right and turn the party into a right-wing nationalist family. The attempted hostile takeover failed, Fidesz is suspended. Clearly the Hungarian ideas of illiberal democracy run in opposition to the core values ​​of the modern EPP. In such an orbanesque version, the People’s Party could accommodate the Matteo Salvini’s La Lega and the Polish Law and Justice (PiS).

However, the Fidesz affair weakens the EPP. There are also those, like Janša, who believe that there should be room for the Hungarian party. But for the Hungarians to be unsuspended, they would have to undo many of their changes. There is also the fear that the Fidesz exit from the EPP could have followers. One EPP member protests: “I absolutely do not believe this. This is a rumour spread by the Orbán supporters. There will be no domino effect“. Hence many delegates do not mind the suspension. A report on what to do with Fidesz may be done in December or maybe in the new year. Donald Tusk says the issue should be solved by the end of January 2020.

There is a wide consensus to reject populism. But there is no consensus on what to offer in return. How to effectively talk to Europeans and address their worries? “We must remain a people’s party,” says new Slovak MEP Vladimír Bilčík. “People demand answers here and now, and the answers to these challenges can only be European,” he continues. Bilčík is a politician with a profile comparable to the Croatian prime minister and host of the summit, Andrej Plenković. Both are in their 40-ties and are building their political position with a strong belief and ownership for the European project. “We are the responsible ones. Everything we propose is put into practice” Sean Kelly adds on this point.

Plans for the future

A sense of responsibility, rejection of populism and building an effective offer for Europeans, this is the plan for the future. The EPP wants to fight back for European values ​​like never before. Especially for the rule of law. One MEP asked to be anonymous when he says: “Fidesz is a virus“.

Climate change is also important. It is impossible to escape from the feeling, however, confirmed by many interlocutors, that the EPP is defensive on the topic. The credibility on the climate issues lies with the Green parties, and to a lesser degree, with the Social-Democrats. In Zagreb the EPP is discussing how to balance the greening of the economy with the jobs and the economic performance. They seek for a golden snitch instead of promoting green innovation, some younger and some more liberal MEPs complain. In this political debate over the greening of the economy the EPP frequently accuse the European Greens of political populism, even if Joseph Daul, the outgoing party leader, says he supports to declare the climate crisis an emergency. Many more conservative EPPers do not like to talk climate, instead some prefer to talk sustainability.

Bilčík and Plenković see the issue of greening of politics in their home countries differently. Bilčík speaks bluntly about his party SPOLU in Slovakia, an EPP member, “We are the Greens of Slovakia“.

New kind of leadership

Against this picture Donald Tusk takes over the leadership of the party. Professor Steven van Hecke of the University of Leuven explains what just happened this way: “It is discontinuity, because this is the first [presidency] from the Central European country, not from the traditional Christian democratic power bases of Western Europe. But it is a continuity, because those power bases do not exist any more since May 2019. The strongholds of EPP are in Central and Eastern Europe, so in that way it is not a coincidence“. This explains the context of the Tusk’s ascent to the EPP power, but “why him”? Professor van Hecke continues: “The former president of the European Council has the authority. He will be more political and the litmus test is Fidesz“.

New stars and parameters of success

In the ocean of sorrow not everything is only negative. The recent successes of the EPP members in Greece (winning against the populist left) and Austria (successfully fighting the populist extreme right) promote the figures of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and former/future Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “The future belongs to them” can be heard when a crowd gathers around Kurz, the “right-wing conqueror”, who, between successive selfies with youth activists and subsequent interviews, tries to rebuild his position in the EPP. Earlier this year Mr Kurz gave up power as a result of a corruption scandal of his far right coalition partner, held the elections and won them decisevely. Mr Kurz is only 33 years old.

Mr Kurz behind the scenes briefs the journalists

Retiring Joseph Daul (72), as well as Donald Tusk who replaces him in a few days, speak of rejuvenation of the EPP leadership. When the important words of the new leader on the defence of European values ​​are spoken on the main stage, one of the EPP activists asserts on a side: “Tusk is a defender of these values” and adds that the success of the new leadership will be measured based on two criteria. First, he expects Fidesz to be removed from the EPP. Second, how aggressively the new EPP leadership will be seeking for new directions for the party and building a “positive agenda”.

Earlier version of this article was published in Polish on Onet.pl

Trzaskowski: Orbán is EPP’s enfant terrible

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The 2019 European elections are important. There are many issues creating its context. High partisanship does not allow for a proper debate to take place in Poland, but there is a great divide in whole of Europe, too. The united opposition accuses the government of breaking the basic principles of democracy in Poland. The anti-Europeans try to present a unifying front in Europe.

Rafał Trzaskowski
source: Facebook

To discuss where are we in the electoral process today I sit with Rafał Trzaskowski, mayor of Warsaw. Mr Trzaskowski is a former MEP (2009-2013), minister of administration and digitalisation (2013-2014) and minister for European affairs (2014-2015). Apart from being a leading face of the Polish opposition, he serves also as a vice-president of the European People’s Party.

This is an electoral marathon. There were local elections last year. Now there are the European elections. Then the parliamentary elections in the fall and the presidential elections in 2020. What do you make of it?

Rafał Trzaskowski: The tempo remains similar. This is a permanent campaign. I see it in Warsaw, where the campaign continues non stop after the October elections.

Are you still the public enemy no.1 for the national television TVP?

RT: Maybe not no.1, but one of the enemies. I became a symbol during the local elections.

Law and Justice started its European elections last December with a splash of a make-over: prime minister Morawiecki with the European flag! Two years ago prime minister Szydło thrown the European flag out of her office.

RT: Who will buy this? This is a government which questions the European laws and EU law supremacy and the capacity to ask the prejudicial questions to the ECJ, the government which breaks the rule of law and basic principles of democracy, the government which refuses to dialogue with the European Commission in good faith. And now they try to wear new clothes. Once Poles have voted for president Andrzej Duda and got Jarosław Kaczyński instead. They voted for prime minister Beata Szydło and got Jarosław Kaczyński instead. Will the Poles do the same mistake the third time? I doubt it. When it comes to the European policy, this government’s credibility has been compromised. 

Do you expect the European Coalition to win the European elections in Poland?

RT: I do. This is a broad list and this is why it has a great chance to win the elections.

Manfred Weber talks to Der Spiegel

Manfred Weber is the EPP Spitzenkandidat – will the Civic Platform campaign with Mr Weber?

RT: This is part of the EPP campaign. Five years ago the Spitzenkandidaten campaign in non-German speaking countries had a low-level recognition, about 2%. Will it be more visible in this campaign, not only in Poland? We shall see, but we will support Manfred.

Weber is an excellent candidate. He’s been in Poland many times and he will be back in Poland in the future. He is a friend of Poland. We know each other well. He is against divisions in Europe. I think he is a great candidate.

Weber also defended Viktor Orbán for a long time. With the posters campaign in Budapest he says in Der SpiegelI expect him to apologize and put an end to the poster campaign. Beyond that, we cannot simply return to business as usual. It has reached a new level; appeals are no longer sufficient. We will take concrete steps very soon.” There are still defenders of Mr Orbán among German EPP politicians.

Viktor Orbán in 2017

RT: He is not defending Orbán anymore. He claims, like most of us, that it was better to have some impact on Viktor Orbán, who was, unlike PiS, ready to take steps back. I think we can afford to have one such enfant terrible among us, but this is highly controversial. Yet so far we have not taken a decision to throw Fidesz out of the EPP, but we are discussing it.

What do you expect from the European campaign?

RT: First of all, I would like to see this campaign to be a European one. Frequently the campaign to the European Parliament has very little to do with the European issues. People talk only about the national issues. For Poles the choice is symbolic. This is a choice between a strong, constructive position within the European Union, people who are able to defend the Polish interests and secure them in a wider European narrative on the one hand, and on the other hand the reality of today, inept and unprofessional government, which questions European integration and puts Poland at the margins of the EU. This will be the central issue of this campaign. 

And the EPP is expected to win?

RT: I do not foresee any other result. The Social-democrats and the Liberals are weak. The Euro-skeptics have hard time agreeing with one another.

PiS is critical of the Spitzenkandidaten system while they have one of their own. ECR has appointed Jan Zahradil as a Spitzenkandidat. I have the impression this news has hardly arrived in Warsaw by now.

RT: The Spitzenkandidaten system is logical, but is not yet deeply rooted among the European citizens. Zahradil is not a politician who has been active on the European political scene.

Macron is also against the Spitzenkandidaten system.

RT: Simply because he is not rooted in the European political system. En Marche has not chosen its destiny. For awhile it looked they may become part of ALDE, but no decision has been taken. Macron hoped to construct an alternative, but there no one followed.

Europe is based on cooperation. If someone contests the mainstream than it is very difficult to be successful. Various anti-mainstream parties have a variety of ideologies in different states. It is difficult to compare M5S with En Marche or with another anti-mainstream offer of AfD or Kukiz’15. They are all very different.

The turnout in Poland in European elections is traditionally very low. Will it be different this time?

RT: I am certain of it, because we are in a string of elections. It will be another occasion to manifest the opposition to PiS. It is truly about Europe this time. Last time people did not feel that membership in the Union was endangered. Today Poland is marginalised. I expect a much higher turnout.

Those elections are crucial. Who wins the European elections is the favourite to win the national elections in the fall. The local elections brought a mixed result, but the trend has started. It was PiS who was unhappy with the October 2018 results. People were frustrated they had no impact on the government. Now they will seek to confirm their influence.

There is a misconception in Poland about an MEP. A dominant impression is that MEPs are deported from the national politics to the European Parliament, or go there to earn big money or both. There is also the third cynical option – to rest from the real politics, which is national. Why Poles should vote for a good candidate to the EP?

RT: It’s a stereotype. It is a job of a serious political party to chose candidates who go to the EP to work not to enjoy early retirement. Yes, the disproportions with MPs salaries are massive; this makes the European Parliament particularly attractive, also in the context of the 20% cut of the MPs salaries that Jarosław Kaczyński proposed last year to cover up his sins. The Civic Platform always choses serious candidates for the EP. I am sure that the European Coalition list will be a top-league list. 

It is a great challenge to fight the stereotype of the European Parliament being weak. To show its real powers. There are even leading academics in Poland who say the Parliament cannot do much. As if nothing changed since 1970s. Today the EP co-legislates all of the Union laws, co-decides on the budget. There is hardly any area where the EP is not equal to the member states. 

Recognising the real powers of the Parliament; a strong presence in big political groups and putting forward the candidates who know how and what to do is crucial to promote the interests of a country. This is how the European Coalition recognises the reality today and will work in the future.

European Parliament

Orbán’s days in the EPP are…

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Early March in Brussels is a cloudy weather for Fidesz, the Hungarian EPP member. Fidesz is a powerful national party in Hungary, ruling alone in Budapest since 2010. Fidesz is also a powerful party within the European People’s Party. With 12 MEPs the Hungarian delegation in among the strongest in the EPP group. EPP’s chief whip is József Szájer, a Hungarian Fidesz MEP.

A disillusionment with Fidesz has been growing for years. First among the non-EPP critics. With time, the wave of criticism has reached the EPP shore. The controversies with the Budapest government have been shelved and protected for when the key decisions were taken, Mr Orbán usually delivered and converged with the CDU and alikes: on the election of Mr Tusk or Mr Juncker to the top EU offices, on the support for major legislative proposals or the sanctions on Russia. The only major EU policy with Hungarians in opposition to the Brussels mainstream? The migration policy. There are also the internal developments and the rhetoric of Mr Orbán. As a member of the EPP the internal developments were mainly understood as domestic issues. Until Article 7 has been triggered against Hungary; the political debate moved forwards. Even then, as one senior EPP politician told me back in December 2018: “EPP can afford one such enfant terrible among us”.

Why keeping Fidesz? Pál Csáky, EPP MEP from Slovakia, who represents the Hungarian minority, said that the message to the EPP leadership is simple: 12 MEPs today and a potential increase to “12-13-14 mandates will be for the European People’s Party in the next European Parliament“. It is the leverage and extra seats in the EP that the Hungarians provide. There are more Hungarians in the EPP than all the Scandinavian MEPs (Swedish, Danish, Finnish – 8), or equal to the entire Benelux MEPs (Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgian – 12).

Budapest 2019, source: dailynewshungary.com

The latest wave of criticism towards Fidesz comes from the campaign in which Fidesz puts the faces of Juncker and George Soros with a warning: “You have the right to know what Brussels is planning to do“. It is one thing to scare the Hungarians with migrants or the Roma or an American billionaire of Hungarian background (the EPP might be indifferent or silent), it is quite another to scare the general public with a leading EPP face. The face EPP is most proud of. The face of the Commission president.

Juncker greats Orbán “dictator” in 2015

Remember when Jean-Claude Juncker joked about his Hungarian partner “dictator”? It was friendly back then. The relationship is unfriendly today.

A number of EPP member parties are already in internal opposition to Fidesz calling for the Fidesz expulsion from the EPP. The Benelux EPP parties are unhappy. The Nordic EPP parties voice concern. There is dissatisfaction with the Portuguese. Even the Bulgarians take a move.

Until the Juncker affair, the EPP largest national delegations, the Germans (34), the Poles (22), the French (20) and the Spanish (17) were largely silent. This starts to change.

Manfred Weber spoke to Der Spiegel. In the interview published in English the EPP Spitzenkandidat says “Viktor Orbán is following the wrong political path” and:

Orbán badly damaged the EPP. That is why I expect him to apologize and put an end to the poster campaign. Beyond that, we cannot simply return to business as usual. It has reached a new level; appeals are no longer sufficient. We will take concrete steps very soon.

Manfred Weber

Mr Weber also announced he will make proposals in the coming days, since “there has been a fundamental change in the handling of Orbán. Enough is enough.”

Mr Orbán responded in his style in Die Welt am Sonntag calling people critical of him “useful idiots”. He also announced the Fidesz campaign with Juncker photo will discontinue on 15 March. Mr Juncker photograph will be replaced with that of Mr Timmermans. On 20 March the EPP political assembly is scheduled. On 7-8 March this week the EPP Group Bureau meets in Warsaw.

Andrzej Grzyb MEP

Andrzej Grzyb, MEP with the Polish People’s Party (PSL) tells me today that PSL is not in favour of taking drastic steps towards Fidesz. This has been communicated already to Mr Daul, head of EPP, as throwing Fidesz out of EPP would create more problems than by keeping them in. Mr Grzyb: “We are in favour of keeping them in”.

Michał Boni, MEP

I also speak to Michał Boni, a leading EPP MEP elected in Warsaw (Civic Platform). He says the EPP should have a two way approach to Fidesz. The first stage should be to have a debate organised with Orbán face-to-face to explain the situation in Hungary, including the CEU expulsion and the smearing campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker.

In the second stage, according to Boni, the motion to remove Fidesz from EPP could be procured. For that seven national parties are needed.

Instead of thinking about how many votes we can lose by throwing out Fidesz we need to ask how many votes we shall lose if we keep them in.

Michał Boni MEP

Et alors?

What few people want to admit today is that with Mr Orbán in the EPP or outside of it he is a potential future king maker in the European political scene. Should a coalition between him, Law and Justice and La Lega of Salvini come into realisation, this new group of like-minded politicians could become a major force in European politics.

Mr Weber may still need Mr Orbán if he wants to become Commission president. Probably Weber is going to look to the left side for support (Macron!), but it may be that Fidesz could be useful again. Hence it is important to see if the divorce takes place and what is the atmosphere the day after. This might be especially relevant in… the European Council. With Orbán, the Polish and Italian governments there are already 3 members of the European Council who could be potentially opposed to Mr Weber presidency. If the divorce is hostile there could be more unwelcoming faces for Mr Weber as head of the next Commission. To block any candidate in the European Council a Visegrad-4 coalition with Italy, Austria, Bulgaria and Romania would be enough: 35.84% of population of EU-27.