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17th Feb 2019

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Political battles risk paralysing new EU parliament

  • 'The debate will be between pro-European and anti-Europeans' (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

With the rise of euroscepticism on both the political left and right, simply retaining the current level of European integration during the next EP mandate will be a victory, says a veteran Brussels-based EU lobbyist.

Thomas Tindemans, head of Hill&Knowlton in Brussels, suggests that the changes in the next parliament will be such that previously technical discussions on legislation could be replaced by ideological disagreements on fundamental EU principles.

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Noting that both extremes of the political spectrum are "fundamentally against the EU", Tindemans says: "If they can form important groups, if they can get rapporteurs, committee presidencies then you'll have a whole other debate."

"Instead of the mostly technical work now, you'll have a debate where fundamental principles are put into question: against the internal market or free movement, in favour of protectionism," says Tindemans, who has worked as a lobbyist for over two decades.

"So, if during the next [five year] mandate we manage to keep the integration we have now, that will already be a victory."

Looking ahead to the next European Parliament, where finding majorities for proposals is expected to be more difficult, Tindemans, a Belgian national, says the key question will be whether "the big parties co-operate sufficiently, or whether populism will prevail".

He reckons the new political contours of the parliament will mean that the centre-right EPP and the centre-left S&D will be "doomed to join forces".

This in turn will limit the nuance of political debate: "The present alternative majorities will no longer be possible. The debate will be between pro-European and anti-Europeans."

Meanwhile, even if groups will nominally remain the same, their make-up is likely to be very different. The current Liberal group has liberal and centrist pro-Europeans: "Will the balance between them shift?"

The anti-federalist ECR group is at the moment dominated by British Conservatives. But after the vote, they are set to be outnumbered by Poles. Will this have an effect on free trade, asks Tindemans?

And the big open question is whether France's Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, will be able to form a group with the Dutch Freedom Party.

Don't fall for euroscepticism

Addressing businesses, the lobbyist says companies should not fall for euroscepticism.

"Companies are sometimes tempted by euroscepticism because of the many regulatory interventions during the previous mandate. But they should realise that eurosceptics are against the single market, against free trade, in favour of new barriers. This is not a model for growth and jobs."

"Companies should subscribe to the agenda of economic growth and job creation and ... should develop their arguments in that framework," he notes.

Tindemans says he has seen a shift in policy emphasis since the beginning of the crisis.

The trend in EU Institutions has been towards consumer protection, which is more about "restriction" and about "public intervention".

This, he says, is the flip side of liberalisation.

He points to a simple word search of EU databases saying that 25 years ago the most used words were 'internal market': "It was all about facilitating cross-border activities, removing barriers."

"Around the turn of the century, the words 'green' or 'ecological' or 'climate' were in every proposal. And now, since the beginning of the crisis, it's all about 'consumer protection'."

This, says Tindemans, is a result of a public that interacts more with institutions, and says what it wants, particularly on social media.

It is also partly a reaction to rising euroscepticism. The institutions were "looking for a new role, one that favours the citizen. This is why in the power balance between stakeholders, those defending the citizens and the consumers have a growing impact".

Nevertheless, he says that much of the legislation is at the request of companies: "For example, saving the euro and getting rid of the consequences of the crisis is the most pro-business decision possible."

The political dilemma

The next five years will be all about economic growth and job creation, which creates a natural dilemma. To do this "we have to deepen the internal market, but political forces go in the opposite direction".

"Stability and predictability are good for the economy," says Tindemans. "But to stimulate growth and jobs, other instruments will have to be added."

"Energy policy will be crucial. Research and innovation should also be a top priority."

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