Tomi Huhtanen: Populists admitted the EU has an added value

The fragmentation of the political landscape is a common phenomenon in Europe

Tomi Huhtanen

I think the increase in voter turnout is a very clear sign of a growing - albeit slowly - European demos. In the elections of 2014, 5-6 years after the economic crisis started, voting numbers dropped. Over the last five years, something has definitely shifted this trend in the opposite direction. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is Brexit, because the people see how difficult it is for a country to survive outside the EU, says Tomi Huhtanen, Executive Director of Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Huhtanen, do you agree with the statements of some observers that the recent European elections show a victory for the Eurosceptic parties?

There was a lot of hype about the rise of Eurosceptic parties before the elections, but when we look at the results numerically, the increase is not so significant if you group together the ECR and the other two Eurosceptic groups. We should also note that the Brexit party - one of the biggest of those groups - will leave the EP if Brexit happens, which would weaken the Eurosceptic parties.

What was also important is that the popularity of the populists was driven by domestic issues; it is clear they were focused on identity-driven issues like immigration and nationalistic topics, rather than European ones. As such, their election result was very predictable, as it was a reflection of their popularity at the national level.

There was an expectation of a big surge for Eurosceptic parties, but in the end, their victory was rather limited. They don't have any blocking minority and they still have a long way to go in order to have real influence and a significant role in the European Parliament. Of course, there is a lot of talk about Salvini's plan to form one big Eurosceptic group, but at the end of the day what it comes down to are the number of MEPs.

Another key problematic here is the significant number of dividing issues between them that look very difficult to overcome. One is Russia. The Polish Law and Justice Party has an extremely negative view towards Russia, while Salvini's is very positive. The nationalist parties from the Baltic countries also think differently about Russia.

Another big issue where Eurosceptic groups are divided is immigration. Salvini is strongly supportive of the idea that the whole of Europe should share the burden of responsibility for refugees, while other populist parties take a very different view on that.

The reality is that in the new Parliament it will be seriously problematic for the populist parties to work together as a coherent unit.

There was not a very strong anti-European rhetoric this time, how can this fact be explained?

The simple explanation is that before Brexit many of the Eurosceptic parties, like the one of Marine Le Pen in France, had a very critical, pro-leave position on the EU, but because of Brexit, the mood in Europe has changed; people see what is happening in the UK and understand that leaving the Union is a very painful process.

Secondly, because of the rise of the populist parties, people have come to understand that the survival of the EU can no longer be taken for granted. A number of surveys found that nine out of ten Europeans think that if the EU collapses they will lose something in their personal lives.

This all meant the populist parties that aimed to become key players in national politics had to take into account the general shift in public opinion; they don't say that the EU is a failed project anymore, but that the EU needs radical reform.

This is already a more complex message, and the elections have shown that it is no longer easy for them to make that argument. It presents a tactical problem for the populist parties, because by talking about reform they admit that the EU has an added value.

Even though they are still rather influential, why in your view are the two biggest political families in the EP suffering losses?

The fragmentation of the political landscape is a common phenomenon across Europe. For various reasons, we have new political parties springing up, and in some cases they are gaining ground very quickly.

One reason why Liberals have gained seats is not because there is a kind of ideological shift, but rather that the EPP and the Socialists are more or less already representative of all major political parties in European countries. By contrast, the Liberals in many countries either have no member parties or they have one which is very large. What happens then is that when they enter the EP, these new parties join the Liberals to distinguish themselves from their established national rivals, who are largely members of the EPP or the Socialists.

That said, we should also be asking what are the underlying reasons for this shrinking of big parties, and by contrast, for the growth of new parties at national level?

One of them is very clear, and that is the big gap between the expectations of the citizens in terms of what they expect from the economy and societal development.

People remember clearly the significant, positive changes we experienced in Europe in the nineties. Now, after years of economic crisis, there is a strong perception that the new generation does not have the same positive conditions that the old generation enjoyed. This has created dissatisfaction and led to a situation where the voters have started looking for new options, and presents a major challenge for more mainstream political parties.

Very clearly, the other issue is that people are reluctant to vote based on broad, traditional ideologies like Socialism anymore. Rather, they are voting for certain values on a case-by-case basis. Even highly educated voters are choosing to vote for parties because they like the position that one party has on a specific issue.

All that contributes to fragmentation; it is more difficult for the big parties to meet all the different expectations and needs for voters as they used to do, and this has given a certain leverage to niche parties. This creates a more challenging situation for the big political groups.

Voter turnouts across Europe increased, but what do you think is the message of the other 49% of the Europeans who didn't go to cast their vote?

The increase in voter turnout is historic, and I do not see any negative aspect to that. Of course, it would be better if more people went out to vote, but if you compare it with voting activity in the US elections, relatively speaking this turnout is quite good.

I think this increase is a very clear sign of a growing - albeit slowly - European demos. In the elections of 2014, 5-6 years after the economic crisis started, voting numbers dropped. Over the last five years, something has definitely shifted this trend in the opposite direction.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is Brexit, because the people see how difficult it is for a country to survive outside the EU.

Secondly, voters have seen that the EU cannot be taken for granted.

Third has been the impact and visibility of the 'Spitzenkandidaten' process. Judging by its coverage across national media in different countries, perhaps it did not have a huge impact per se, but it certainly made a difference.

How fierce will the battle for the top jobs be, and what will be the level of 'horse trading'?

Now, in the wake of the elections, the EPP is the biggest group at the European Parliament, and our lead candidate is Manfred Weber, whom the party is standing behind for Commission President.

It is a defining moment, and we will see how well the new Parliament is able to deal with the fact that the two biggest groups, the EPP and the Socialists, don't have a majority. Before, the EPP and the Socialists alone covered more than 50% of the seats, and these two parties worked together to run the Parliament.

Now the situation is that the EPP and the Socialists need to form a bloc with the Liberals to have a functioning majority. There are new balances to be found in the Council as well, and maybe the process will take some more time to work through.

The EPP is also aware that other political groups will present rival candidates to the EPP for key positions. The selection process, then, might be complicated, but there are possibilities for solutions.

What signal did the European Council give by saying that the lead candidate from the party with the higher score will not automatically be nominated as Commission President?

Legally it is correct because there is no automaticity in the current Treaties for the 'Spitzenkandidat' procedure. The Council will nominate its candidate having reflected on the European elections' results, but it is not more clearly defined in the Treaties.

However, the high turnout in the recent elections and the fact that the majority of political groups committed to the 'Spitzenkandidat' process has strongly enhanced its political and democratic legitimacy. There is also the issue of continuity; the previous Council nominated Juncker, who was the EPP's 'Spitzenkandidat'. Now we are simply following the same procedure.

What will happen if French President Macron insists for Michel Barnier or for Margrethe Vestager to be at the helm of the EU executive?

It is already well known that Macron is not in favour of the lead candidate procedure, but he represents only one country out of 28, and his party has just 21 MEPs in the new Parliament.

The discussion has just got underway, but it remains the case that Macron is in the minority on this issue. His views are certainly relevant, but his influence is limited.

After the 'Last Chance Commission', what agenda do you expect the next team to put forward?

I think there are several issues the next Commission needs to deal with. First of all are the ongoing issues.

Then we have a reform of the Common European Asylum System, that concerns the migration challenge, and it is also one issue that has not been completed. Related to that, we also have a debate on the Schengen area and preserving security and the free movement, which are the two sides of the same coin.

We need to move on euro-related issues - for example to make sure that the economic structure which is supporting the euro is still viable, in particular the completion of the Economic and Monetary Union and the Banking Union.

An issue that needs a lot of public support is Common European Defence, and the discussion of different instruments to support our security efforts. Maybe the European Security Council will come up, as well as perhaps some proposals related to the European Defence Union.

There are also of course ambitions that have yet to be fully realised - the Digital Single Market. The Single Market is still not completed, even though it was on the agenda of the last Commission. Then we have the Energy Union, the dependency on energy imports - a debate also relevant of course to Bulgaria.

I'd also like to underline the growing importance of addressing environmental and climate change issues. Things like the circular economy and investment in green policies. These are issues which the new Commission will have to be more engaged with, especially after the green surge in last month's elections.

The new Commission also will continue to tackle the challenges of completing free trade deals, and by extension, the protection of the entire multilateral system. One of the things that I like in the Juncker Commission is its persistence on trade agreements with different parts of the world, with Japan, and I think discussions with Mercosur will move forward as well.

Then, there are justice and human rights issues, the rule of law should be directly on the agenda, as well as migration, and in general the EU's role in the future as a global actor.

These are some of the key issues that will need to be addressed going forward.

Do you think the new UK leadership will push for swift Brexit even at the price of no deal?

The Brexit party won a lot of seats in the European elections, and hard Brexiteers have seized on the idea that this represents a democratic endorsement of a 'no-deal' Brexit. That seems a rather unfortunate interpretation of the public's view.

We must also consider that the election results were catastrophic for the two major parties. The election went horribly for the Labour Party, but even worse for the Conservatives; both parties were punished for their lack of clarity on the Brexit issue.

After these disastrous results, the leadership of both parties will be feeling significant pressure to take more defined and rigid positions. Labour will move more clearly in favour of remaining, while the Conservatives under their new leader will move in the opposite direction and push for a hard Brexit. It might sound very unlikely, but there is also the slim possibility of a second referendum.

To summarise, the polarisation of the leadership in both parties makes the likelihood of a hard Brexit higher, but there could of course be some unlikely surprises, like a second referendum being called.

 

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Tomi Huhtanen has been Executive Director of the Brussels-based Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies (WMCES, previously Centre for European Studies) since 2007. The WMCES is a European political foundation and the official think tank of the European People's Party (EPP). He is also Editor-in-Chief of European View, the academic journal of the WMCES. He was previously EPP Senior Adviser, focusing on Economic and Social Issues. Before that, he worked for the Finnish EPP Delegation to the European Parliament. He studied International Politics and Economics at the University of Helsinki and spent a year in Spain at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, studying International Law and Political History. He also holds an MBA degree from the United Business Institute in Brussels. He speaks Finnish, Swedish, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, and has basic knowledge of German.

 

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