The year is barely 3 days old and we can already see the first major cracks inside the European Union. The accomplices of the technocratic elite, who until now had worked quietly together to conceal the reality of their economic and political consolidation project, are beginning to show each other some teeth.
The great European coalition has broken out on its left flank.
Alarmed by the political attrition of supporting certain conservative policies or supporting Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, when the LuxLeaks scandal erupted, the Social Democrat group in the European Parliament has broken its parliamentary pact with the Popular Party (EPP) at the European Parliament and has moved to retain the presidency of the institution.
The decision will have a direct impact on the renewal of internal positions in the second half of the legislature but also points to more far-reaching changes in the face of upcoming election appointments.
The camaraderie and calls for accountability with which the EPP and the European Social Democratic group agreed to support the conservative Juncker as chairman of the Commission and give a further mandate to the Socialist Martin Schulz as President of the Euro-Chamber have vanished completely.
“We are dissatisfied with how some issues have been resolved in the first part of the legislature,” from mitigating criticism of the refugee agreement with Turkey to maintaining an unsociable economic policy, says Ramon Jáuregui, head of the Spanish delegation.
“We want to change things, put a progressive accent on some of the battles that are going to take place in the EU” in economic policy, emigration and equality.”
Conservatives cling to the agreement signed in July 2014 with the Socialists, to claim that Schulz give way to one of his own.
The German tried to follow another mandate, but has finally decided to return to his country to devote himself again to national politics and opt for a seat in the Berlin Parliament – even speculation that he could run for the position of Chancellor. However, in the last week Der Spiegel assumes that he will not do it.
In the debate to see who would replace him at the head of the European Parliament, the social-democratic family has disregarded their commitment with the conservatives.
They now deny that the three major institutions of the Union are run by the conservatives and will not support the PPE candidate, Italian Antonio Tajani. Circumstances have changed, they say. And they have presented their own candidate, the also Italian Gianni Pittella, their current group leader.
The electoral calendar of 2017 that culminates with the European elections of 2019 has also been one of the factors that has influenced the Socialists to detach themselves from the grand coalition.
“The problems of European Social-Democracy are more structural,” admits Jauregui, who insists on “recovering our identity on issues that are more sensitive to us, such as equality, the minimum wage” and “conquering our traditional electorate”.
Esteban González Pons, head of the PP delegation in the European Parliament, however maintains that “the grand coalition is not broken. We are only witnessing a new division of internal power within the socialist group.”
The candidacy of Pittella would be according to him a maneuver of the German delegation to take control of the head of the European socialist group and thus compensate the exit of Schulz. “Tajani has many more positive things to bring in than President Pittella.
He is a candidate from the south and a friend of Spain,” he says. The EPP does not want the support of ultra-right and anti-European parties, which represent at least one-fifth of the House. “Tajani will go ahead with the votes of the right center and the liberals,” he insists. Voting is secret but numbers can speak for themselves.
Pittella says he will fight “to the end” although he would “reconsider” his candidacy if the heads of state and government guarantee that the next president of the European Council will be socialist.
The mandate of Donald Tusk, a Polish conservative, expires on May 31 and its continuity is unclear. It was Merkel’s candidate, but the refugee crisis has distanced them.
After the crisis in Ukraine, where he played a more active role, even the EPP laments his “invisibility” and lack of initiative to try to build bridges between East and West Europe when it comes to immigration, the great fracture of the current political cycle.
The future of Tusk is uncertain. The Polish government, which intends to prosecute him for conspiracy, does not support his continuity but the growing political tensions between Warsaw and the EU can play in favor of it.
“How are we going to return him to Poland in these circumstances?” European sources ask. However, the EPP no longer has a majority in the European Council.
“The EPP will try to keep Tusk but we only have six prime ministers on the Council, so it will depend on whether or not they continue,” warns González Pons.
A socialist alternative to Tusk would be the former Austrian Prime Minister Werner Faymann, Merkel’s ally in the refugee crisis.
In liberal circles, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, is named as another potential candidate. The EPP, because it considers that it is his turn. Socialists, because they see that is the only way to ensure the leadership of the institution, and the liberals, because they aspire to fish in a river riven with Guy Verhofstadt, their group leader and candidate for now unofficial, and to emerge as an alternative when the chaos ends.
Schulz’s release will be decided at the January 17 plenary session in Strasbourg. The absence of a pact between conservatives and Social Democrats throws a total uncertainty about the outcome. No group has enough votes to win the presidency. Pittella’s team considers Tajani their best conservative rival.
His tour as European Commissioner for Industry and his political background – he was a close collaborator of Silvio Berlusconi – may deprive him of support between the Greens and the United Left in Europe.
The liberal group will be key. In 2014, it went from being the third group in the Chamber to being the fourth, behind the most Eurosceptic Conservatives and Reformists in Europe.
Their electoral decline resulted in fewer positions in institutions and papers, a circumstance that the large groups will try to exploit in order to gain their support.
Sources of the liberal group admit to being open to possible “compensations” in exchange for their votes. The role of the next president of the European Parliament will be crucial for the divorce agreement with the United Kingdom; although it does not directly participate in the negotiation with London, its green light is necessary for the separation.