Monday, November 4, 2013

Off and Running

Anyone who doubts that the EU Parliamentary elections are in full swing (voting happens at the end of May) need only consult this interview with Martin Schulz in today's Monde to witness the campaign in all its feckless generality. Schulz is currently President of the Parliament, formerly delegation leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the Parliament, and aspirant to replace José Manuel Barroso as EU Commission President--the big job. Schulz will try to be the face of the center-left at the head of a European-wide slate, and as such bears the hopes of those 'liberals' (in the American sense) for whom the far-left parties of the GUE would threaten too much change.

Schulz claims to represent a 'socialist Europe,' in opposition to the liberal or free-market version that currently prevails, but what does that mean? Advancing plans for the banking union is at the top of his list. Striking a balance between budgetary austerity and growth is another. While he names a series of issues--among them tax evasion, control of financial markets, climate change--he would like to see addressed at the EU level, he stays far away from essential socialist matters such as inequality, income redistribution, and the social safety net, or hot-button social questions such as migration and immigration. Schulz wants the centrist voters to know that his administration would be a 'safe' one.

So what if anything of interest does Schulz offer? What really engages this career MEP (he's been in the Parliament since 1994) is a structural shift that would make the Commission and its President more a creature of the Parliament itself, and less of the Council or heads of state. And this is no small thing. The Europe-wide contest he hopes to win would take the form of a parliamentary majority, and his appointment, unlike Barroso's or other Commission Presidents, would be like a Prime Minister's, a function of that majority. Indeed, while no one imagines that the S & D bloc will finish first in next spring's election, Schulz is more than open to the possibility that a center-left coalition involving Greens and centrist liberals--but not left radicals--would bring him to power. This simple strategy, second nature in a parliamentary system, would mark a subtle but seismic advance in the accountability of the Commission, and the Parliament, to a 'people of Europe' and not just to the 28 constituent states. In power, Schulz would very likely be the consensus-driven centrist he presents himself as today, but he would also be the standard-bearer of a more progressive alliance that just possibly would advance the cause of a less market-driven--though hardly socialist--Europe. Not a thrilling prospect, but one worth watching.


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