20th May 2019

Athens vs. Helsinki: EU's left and right to hold pre-summit summits

  • PES activist: 'The EPP have cynically chosen the same date that we had already announced for our meeting' (Photo: Oncle Tom)

It's Athens in the red corner versus Helsinki in the blue corner, as Europe's two great families of ideological pugilists ready themselves for a pair of 'locker-room strategy sessions' at opposite sides of the continent ahead of the most important European summit since the economic crisis hit.

In the lead-up to a council of eurozone premiers and presidents in the EU capital on 11 March, Europe's socialists and conservatives have announced they are to hold separate pre-summit summits, one in the Greek capital for Europe's left-wing leaders and one in the Finnish capital for their right-wing rivals.

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It is perfectly normal for the centre-left Party of European Socialists, which claims just six heads of state and government at the moment in Europe, and the centre-right European People's Party, which has 14, to gather ahead of EU summits in Brussels. But these are normally low-key affairs that last a few hours and take place on the same day as the European Council relatively close to the EU quarter.

On Tuesday (15 February), the European People's Party, the political home of the leaders of Germany, France and Italy, announced it will hold its pre-summit meeting in Helsinki on 4 March, a week in advance of the special eurozone summit.

No ordinary summit, the meeting is to consider some of the most radical changes to both the economy and the structure of the union seen in the past generation.

Leaders are to pronounce on a potential hike in the billions of euros underpinning the single currency's existing bail-out fund; embrace or reject a Franco-German scheme that would take giant strides towards a 'fiscal union' with common retirement ages and harmonised corporate taxes; and debate the 'European Semester' - a commission plan that centralises oversight of national budgets in Brussels.

Jyrki Katainen, Finland's deputy prime minister and finance minister said on Tuesday that the event - to be held in one of Europe's least indebted nations - is designed for the centre right to get its 'game face' on for 11 March.

"I will host in Helsinki a special meeting of EPP prime ministers, which will focus on the preparation of the crucial euro zone summit," he said.

The PES had in December already planned a gathering of social democratic leaders in Athens, which was also due to take place on 4 March.

The Athens meeting was originally intended to show solidarity for the heavily-indebted Greece and to strategise for the regular 24 March EU summit, with the special summit on 11 March announced just last week. "The EPP have cynically chosen the same date that we had already announced for our meeting," a PES activist told this website.

The social democrats are mortified at many aspects of the proposed financial reforms.

Ex-European Commission President Jacques Delors, a member of the PES family, has called Brussels' Annual Growth Survey - the key document of the so-called European Semester - "the most reactionary document ever produced by the commission".

Two weeks ago, the PES' Financial and Economic Network - the party's forum for developing economic policies - adopted the key points their leaders are likely to bring to both to the summit tables.

The key, according to party spokesman Bryan Synnott, is moving away from an "austerity alone" response to the crisis and making EU-IMF loans conditional on a return to growth "not just fiscal discipline". The party rejects any role for the IMF - which is currently led by one of their own, France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn - in a future permanent European bail-out structure. The left also wants to see the issuance of so-called Eurobonds (bonds issued at EU level), a robust financial transactions tax and "a lot less austerity" in general.

Within the eurozone, and indeed the EU as a whole, the socialists are very much in the minority, however.

Worse still, while party members may back less market-driven measures, three of the leaders themselves - Greece's George Papandreou, Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero and Portugal's Jose Socrates - have embarked upon stringent programmes of austerity, provoking general strikes and alienating millions of voters from the centre-left.

There may be no fewer divisions on the EPP side.

Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy both hail from the same political family, but their joint 'Competitiveness Pact' proposal has raised hackles in many EPP-led member states including Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Ireland and the Baltic countries over its austere content, proposals on tax harmonisation and for cooking up the very plan bilaterally without the participation of other leaders.

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