- Teresa Turkheimer
A New EU Era, A New Direction?
The time has come for the European Union (EU) to pick its new bosses. The president roles up for grabs are that of the European Commission, European Council, European Parliament and European Central Bank, as well as the role of High representative. The EU is ready for its new era. With the results of the recent parliamentary elections revealing significant shifts in its conventional ideological structure, assigning these positions may be a lot tougher for the current EU leaders. In line with this hopeful ‘new era’, will representation for Eastern Europe improve, breaking the tendency for nominations to favour the West?
If the nominations this year for the EU’s top jobs are anything to go by the election results, we should expect some critical changes. According to the Financial Times, the Green Parties of the EU increased their number of MEPs by an impressive forty percent. Not only has this enhanced their political influence, but they are now necessary for any future coalitions. Far-right and Eurosceptic parties were also victorious with Matteo Salvini (of Italy’s far-right coalition) and Marine le Pen’s (of France’s National Rally) MEPs forming a new group, ‘Identity and Democracy’, along with other European anti-immigration parties. Eurosceptics, whether they be hard or soft, now occupy a large proportion of the European Parliament.
These changes have knocked the firm grip the centre have had for so long over the EU. It is therefore expected that the nominees for the top positions reflect such events. So far, however, this has not been the case. None of the figures nominated have either a strong stance on environmental politics or are Eurosceptic in the slightest. Their politics all lie within the centre-right and -left, meaning the ideological views of the top representatives have remained undisturbed.
Ideology is not the only characteristic current EU leaders have abandoned when deciding candidates for the top jobs. The representation of Eastern Europe has also been overlooked entirely. Unfortunately, however, this is nothing out of the ordinary. Out of all the roles available, only the EU council has previously held Eastern Europeans in office. But, then again, their number only reaches a grand total of four out of eighty past presidents. This year’s nominations for the European Commission President saw a different concentration of power within the EU. While all candidates for this position must go through the Spitzenkandidaten process – whereby the most popular party in the Parliament puts forward a candidate, formally nominated by the Council and then voted on by parliament - German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, now the nominee for this position, managed to escape this procedure through back-room negotiations. Even though the date for her election in parliament is set, these isolated decisions made by French and German executives caused uproar. The Western European control is narrowing to fewer powerful member states.
What could this mean for the European Union? Unfortunately, Eastern Europeans are highly accustomed to the Western dominance, so divisions are unlikely to ensue on that front. Additionally, there does not appear to be any significant debate against the western-centric choice of these candidates. There are also certain Eastern European countries whose ideology fall in line with those of the West, and so are willing to concede their control. Furthermore, while the centre’s control has weakened, it has not necessarily disappeared. Despite the fact that agendas prioritizing reform within the EU are becoming extremely popular, it is important not to forget that the centrist groups such as the Socialists and Democrats, the European People’s Party and Renew Group still maintain the most seats in parliament. Consequently, the far-right Eurosceptics are second in line and the environmentalists remain a relatively small group in comparison. Moreover, even though the nominees are chosen by the European Council, they must then be voted on by parliament. MEPs representing countries from Eastern Europe, Eurosceptics and environmentalists will thus be able to voice their opinion on whether they believe the candidate rightly fits the position.
In contrast, the most likely change of direction in EU policy will not come from the candidates chosen to replace the top positions, but from the European Parliament where Eurosceptic MEPs’ numbers may have a significant effect on forthcoming EU legislation and debate. Therefore, it is not guaranteed that new candidates will equal a new EU.
However, in a time where Brexit is underway and far-right political parties are gaining ground on the political scene, the EU cannot go on ignoring the rising demographic of Eurosceptics and environmentalists both in parliament and within the EU’s member states as a whole. If their needs and issues are not addressed, the EU would be falling short of their values of cooperation and solidarity, and would not be performing as the democratic institution it claims to be. Not to mention their ignorance to Euroscepticism could aggravate their anger even more, leading Eurosceptics to become a threat to the very existence of the EU.
While they may not necessarily be ideological changes, there are two elements Europeans should look forward to once these positions are in place. One positive note is the EU’s awareness on enforcing gender equality amongst its leaders. Christine Lagarde, candidate for President of the European Central Bank (ECB), and Ursula von der Leyen, for the European Commission, would both become the first female to hold office in these positions. Thus, a triumphant step taken by the increasingly progressive EU.
To further elaborate on their choice of Christine Lagarde, the ECB’s role within the EU will be the most drastic change in EU policy direction, especially under her command. Not only will it act as a financial institution within the EU, but it will now become a political one. Under ex-President Mario Draghi’s control, the ECB’s sole purpose was to make sure member states were safely pulled out of the economic crisis, and in doing so predominantly focused on fiscal policies to do this. Now that these countries are back on their feet (at least the majority of them), Lagarde can cooperate with politicians to create legislation that will promote growth and further strengthen the EU as a whole.
The fact that Lagarde is not an economist as such, but has had a rich career with multiple ministerial roles within the French government and as chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), means that her expertise married with a new ECB economic chapter should allow Europeans to expect a more prosperous and exciting future.
Regardless of which groups have the majority in parliament and whether it is countries in the East or West that are the most powerful within the organisation, the EU will quickly have to come to terms with the changing political atmosphere, and the nominations for the EU’s top jobs could be a chance to address and echo this. Divisions, excluding that of the Spitzenkandidaten debate, may begin to show if these events are not addressed. On the other hand, while the change in direction is certainly not ideological, the choice of Lagarde for the ECB will open new doors for the EU, and the increase of women in powerful positions is shining a positive light on the institution.