Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Italian Connection

Italy is not often grouped among Europe's Great Powers. But with 73 seats in the EP--the same as the UK, just one less than France--Italy does weigh in fairly heavily in that forum. For that reason it was no surprise to see Alexis Tsipras in Rome yesterday, fresh from his triumphant march to the Bastille on Saturday, collecting his endorsement from the SEL (Left Ecology Freedom) Party and its luminaries, Barbara Spinelli and Nichi Vendola. On the other hand, current polls suggest that SEL and its Left allies won't make it over the bar to win any  seats in the new EP.

But that's not the crux of the story in Italy, where the third largest bloc (18 seats, according to the same polls) may belong to Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle. Since that party has never appeared in the EP, no one quite knows how they will affiliate. Marine Le Pen was in Italy after her party's blow-out in the Municipals, but her Italian compagni della strada--the Northern League and the Fratelli Italiani, both suspiciously neo-fascist, in the literal sense--are completely unpalatable to Grillo and his grillini, who for the most part have left-libertarian tendencies. Joining the conventional parties of the center makes even less sense  for this anti-establishment crowd.

So will they join Tsipras and the GUE? Domestically they spurned Vendola's overtures when it seemed possible to form a Left coalition government with Democrats, Sel and the MCS. But that was then, and part of a domestic realignment. On the European front Grillo's legions might find themselves most at home on the left aisle, and that would increase the weight of Tsipras and the Other Europe cause by quite a lot. Vedremmo.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A French Twist

For more than 60 years now European statesmen have dreamed of a Europe that could see its larger interests as a whole, rather than a collection of local, parochial problems played out on a larger and slightly distant stage. With the creation of the Euro and de facto the financial elements of such a broader polity, the problem of knitting together a more integrated European-wide system of governance has loomed larger. Especially in the wake of the ongoing economic crisis and the pivotal role of the ECB, one might hope that some such larger interest wold be the dominant key of this year's European Parliamentary elections.

But alas, leaders respond to their voters, EU voters organize by national interest, and once again the larger electorate fragments into an aggregate of smaller ones. How this will play out in France--a nation both essential to Europe for its size and prestige and particularly wracked with intractable economic woes--is displayed with characteristic finesse here in a recent analysis by Le Monde's Francoise Fressoz.

Briefly summarized, Francois Hollande's Socialist government, wildly unpopular with voters after 2 years of economic failures, has decided to forget its promises to Brussels that it would contain its budget deficits, and will instead distribute tax breaks on all sides in the hope of provoking that elusive expansion that would make everything right. Cue the EU elections, close-up on Martin Schulz, another tepid 'Socialist' whose program proclaims 'A Different Europe,' one more oriented to social solidarity. So can the French Socialists use his campaign to change the conversation, declaring their enthusiasm for his campaign's sub-text that fiscal discipline isn't so important after all? No one can exactly say so, but that's the highly interesting hint that Fressoz offers from her insider's vantage point. Listen closely as the EU election draws near.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Same Combat?

Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker 'confronted' each other in a broadcast debate last night (see video here), but it isn't clear they contested much of anything. "More a polite conversation than a boxing match," was the verdict of Le Monde's Philippe Ricard. Ostensibly representing Left (Schulz's S&D social democrats) and Right (Juncker's PPE center-right), what the two veteran European politicians really embodied were the limitations of real choice and the pervasive inertia that afflicts the EU in its long march toward a real democratic polity.

Speaking in French, both tried to walk a fine line between pro-business 'reforms' and the need to support intractable numbers of the poor and unemployed. "Solidity and solidarity" was M. Juncker's mantra; "discipline and growth," M. Schulz's. When called upon to say what distinguishes one candidate's program from the other's, both were at a loss, and merely complimented each other on their good taste in finding so much common ground. Perhaps the most interesting remark of the evening was Schulz's observation that the real difference might lie, not between the two candidates, but between Juncker and his actual party. The unflappable Juncker seemed slightly discomposed, but only for a moment.

That exchange notwithstanding, the real debate that Europe needs, and will have, will not happen between these two centrist front-runners. Later in the process--but not till mid-May, alas--the other 3 major candidates will be invited to join the discussion (though the Eurosceptics, lacking a unified candidacy, will remain offstage, if hardly silent). For now, is seems a little sad that the Presidency of the Commission will most likely fall to one or the other of these men, both competent, experienced, assured in their verities, but neither offering any spark of change, of vision, of boldness to a Europe mired in despair.

Monday, April 7, 2014

EU Elections: Why Should We Care?


Here are a few reasons:

1) With 200 or so political parties from 28 nations vying for seats that will eventually group into 6 or so EU Parliamentary super-parties ... these elections are a political junkie's dream come true.

2) Given that the EU is the world's largest--and wealthiest--body politic, there's a lot at stake.

3) Increasingly the affairs of Europe's 28 states and 18 Euro-zone members are regulated in Brussels (or Frankfurt or Strasbourg or Luxembourg--i.e. by the EU in some form). The Parliamentary elections are the only gasp of fully democratic process governing this powerful machinery.

4) As in the US, politics in major European democracies are somewhat stalemated in the face-off of right and left, and paralyzed by the ongoing economic stagnation. Aggregating this problem at the 28-state level doesn't automatically produce a solution, but may offer a more effective scale for resolving issues. For example, would questions of minimum wage and unemployment insurance work better if federalized across the whole EU than in nations struggling each with its own fiscal pressures?

5) As the new Parliament organizes itself, cracks and affiliations between points-of-view that are somewhat idiosyncratic in one country make assume a clearer shape. For example: if a working majority takes shape among Schulz's social dems, Tsipras's far-left, and the greens, this could encourage related parties in a country like France to work more effectively together--despite the fact that the respective party leaders all hate each other.