Whatever happens on Brexit this time next year, Europe will have a new leadership. New MEPs, a new president of the European Council and European Central Bank. A new high representative for foreign policy. New commissioners and above all a new president of the European Commission.
This leadership team has no easy task ahead of them. The EU will be politically unbalanced. Britain will have left unless Theresa May suspends the Article 50 process to allow a new consultation. Growth is faltering. Italy is in the grip of populists with collapsing economic growth. Spain, under a minority socialist government, has little weight in Brussels. The eastern European illiberal clerical nationalists like Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Warsaw and Viktor Orban in Budapest make headlines but do not want to leave the EU and lose all the transfer payments and foreign direct investment that come with full EU economic integration.
So who is going to run the EU? The European Parliament will see elected more small populists representing xenophobic, anti-capitalist, regional and single issue parties. President Macron’s hopes that his En Marche! party would find allies across Europe to create a pan-European political movement have faded. He is on just 34 per cent in current opinion polls, with French economic growth lower than when the socialist François Hollande left office 15 months ago.
The conventional wisdom is that Europe is about to fall under the control of right-wing nationalist, populist and xenophobic political parties. In reality the right is divided on most key issues other than verbal abuse of Brussels. Viktor Orban or Austria’s Sebstian Kurz can smile and shake hands with Italy’s Matteo Salvini but turn a deaf ear to the Italian rightist’s demand that Austria-Hungary take a fair share of refugees currently in Italy. Austria’s foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, danced with Vladimir Putin at her wedding last month and both Orban and Salvini are fellow travellers of the Kremlin. But Poland’s government is ferociously anti-Russian and the country’s prime minister has just announced he wants to see more state control of the Polish economy in the best manner of Jeremy Corbyn.
Left-leaning parties like Spain’s Podemos, Left Party (France) under Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Syriza in Greece; as well as Greens and smaller, radical anti-establishment parties or regional identity parties in Catalonia can win a number of MEP seats under the single-round nationalist proportional system. So, the European Parliament 2019-2024 will not likely be controlled by a single ideological grouping.
But what of Germany? Berlin has already inaugurated a Brussels rumour factory with suggestions that Merkel would like to see a German chosen as successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. The German mentioned was the economics minister, Peter Altmaier, Merkel’s fixer-in-chief. But Brussels already has its fair share of Germans. The secretary general of the commission is German. So is the secretary general of the European Parliament. The president of the centre-right federation, the European People’s Party, is a German. So is the secretary general of the Party of European Socialists. The chief official running Brexit negotiations for Michel Barnier is German.
So another German transfer of a middle-rank politician to Brussels might overload the German-filled boat. Now Berlin says Manfred Weber, an MEP from the right-wing CSU Bavarian party, can run for the post. He is president of the European People’s Party and best known for backing Viktor Orban against more moderate European centre-right politicians who dislike the Hungarian strongman’s disdain for European values and democracy. All Berlin has done is say Weber can seek the EPP nomination. Even if he obtains that and becomes a so-called Spitzenkandidat it is no guarantee that other EU government heads will back a German rightist who has never held a ministerial job.
There is a German alternative however, and this is the question being asked in Berlin. Might Angela Merkel herself seek to be the first woman president of the commission? She has the weight, the authority, the proven government record, international reputation and status, and more political experience and skills than all of today’s European politicians put together.
A deal with France’s President Macron could see a French central banker installed as president of the European Central Bank to reform the economic policy of the Eurozone in favour of growth and jobs with other key posts being allocated on regional, political and gender balance.
Merkel always says her last great challenge is to restore confidence in and purpose to the European Union. She is the one German who could lead post-Brexit Europe and make presidents Trump, Putin and Xi sit up and realise the EU is now getting serious.
Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister of Europe. His last book was ‘Brexit, no Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe’ (IB Tauris)
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