Fri, May 30, 2014 - Page 9 News List

EU members’ political leaders face uncertain future

A Brussels dinner brought together the walking wounded from a European Parliament election that has reshaped the politics of at least four nations

By Ian Traynor  /  The Guardian, BRUSSELS

Illustration: Mountain People

Prime ministers, presidents and chancellors from across Europe dined in Brussels on Tuesday night and digested the verdict from their respective disenchanted voters. Many arrived as walking wounded, their credibility battered, their reputations bruised, their policies discredited.

French President Francois Hollande led his Socialist Party to a historic defeat on Sunday at the hands of the Front National, a party rooted in racism and anti-Semitism.

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived as the only Conservative leader to take his party to third place in a national election.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras traveled to Brussels after being beaten by the young left-wing firebrand Alexis Tsipras and his anti-austerity Syriza movement.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who has been tipped for a top EU job, saw her center-left government badly hit by the nationalist anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party.

Presiding over the dinner was European Council President Herman van Rompuy, anxiously wondering about his legacy and who will take over his job later this year.

It will be weeks before the dust settles on the political earthquake that has seen fundamental shifts in British, French, Greek and Danish politics, and wrought big changes in Scandinavia, Ireland, Spain and Italy.

Already attempts are under way to play down the impact of the vote and to belittle the new class of European lawmakers as noisy, rude and extremist, but also fractious and unable to hold together to get their anti-European way.

However, the incoming nationalists, neo-fascists, establishment baiters and hard leftists will make it trickier for the mainstream to push through its legislative agenda on everything from trade pacts with the US to climate change to immigration policy.

Cameron’s free-market reform agenda may also fall victim to a parliament that will be more protectionist, more anti-US and more pro-Russia.

Almost a third of the new parliament, albeit a motley crew, will be broadly or fervently anti-EU. The establishment response is likely to be a Berlin-style grand coalition of mainstream Christian and Social Democrats, ignoring the upstarts and pushing through their “more Europe” agenda.

The problem is that the two big blocs make up a mere 53 percent of the new chamber, down from 61 percent, highlighting the erosion of centrist political appeal and the domination of politics by the center-right and the center-left. At the last election in 2009, the two big Spanish parties took 80 percent between them. On Sunday that collapsed to just under 50 percent.

The other problem with grand coalitions is that when it comes to countering demagoguery and populism, they commonly become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Deals and policies are stitched up behind the scenes, rubber-stamped by safe parliamentary majorities, leaving the only opposition to the anti-elitist movements hammering on closed doors.

The elections exposed how what started as a banking disaster five years ago, then developed into a financial, debt and currency emergency, has come to roost as a political crisis, testing the competence of and confidence in European leadership.

For Germany, the EU powerhouse, the two big causes for concern are the eurozone’s second and third economies, France and Italy.

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