New EU parliament coalitions get in shape
The new balance of power in the European Parliament was tested on Thursday (19 January) when the left gathered a solid majority behind a proposal for stronger social rights in the EU, two days after losing the battle for the presidency.
"We are still digesting the consequences of the [presidential] election. But the grand coalition is over and what is needed is pro-European forces working together led by progressive proposals," Portuguese MEP Maria Joao Rodrigues, a parliament vice-president from the social-democrat S&D group, told this website.
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Rodrigues was rapporteur on the European pillar of social rights, which details how the EU should update labour law and security systems in the age of digital platforms.
The non-binding report lays out the parliament's expectations to the European Commission, which will present social proposals alongside a white paper on the future of the EU in March, ahead of an EU summit commemorating the 1957 Rome Treaty.
MEPs adopted the report by 396 votes to 180, while 68 abstained.
Many centre-right and liberal MEPs, in addition to far-left GUE/NGL and the Greens, backed the socialist reasoning that the lack of social Europe is a factor driving right-wing nationalism.
"Europe will be social or it will fail. Competition without convergence isn't viable anymore," French centre-right MEP Anne Sander said in a written statement.
"Every citizen should check the voting record. Check who voted for decent working conditions, for living wages, for work-life balance, for minimum-income schemes for the poorest – and who voted instead for zero-hour contracts, against decent wage floors and against public investment," Rodrigues said.
One controversial amendment, which narrowly passed with 317 votes to 315, said that the next time the EU treaty is amended, it should include a social protocol that would enshrine social rights priority over economic freedoms.
The report comes just days after the S&D group failed to win the parliament's presidency with a progressive alliance behind their candidate Gianni Pittella. The post went to Antonio Tajani, the centre-right EPP's candidate, after the group entered a coalition with the liberal Alde and secured the backing of the conservative ECR group.
It remains to be seen how the election will shift the balance of power in the parliament, for years governed by a grand coalition between S&D and EPP.
"The vote on the social pillar is one piece of evidence that this progressive cooperation is possible," Gabi Zimmer, leader of the GUE/NGL group and shadow rapporteur for the social pillar report, told EUobserver.
But she said that cooperation is an "open process [that is] highly contingent upon building trust and concrete willingness on future occasions".
Both GUE/NGL and the Greens say they would like social-democrats to take a critical stance on the EU-Canada free trade agreement, Ceta, due to be voted on in plenary in March.
But in another win for the progressive alliance, MEPs on Thursday also rebelled against the EU commission vetoing its proposal for a blacklist of money-laundering countries. The current list features only ten countries, of which none is a major tax haven. Some MEPs want the US on the list.
Meanwhile, ECR's presidential candidate Helga Stevens told EUobserver that her group would not participate in the EPP-Alde coalition, even if they backed Tajani.
"Both during and after the election I showed that I cannot be bought. They offered me a vice-presidency post and I refused it, because their agreement goes against everything we believe in," Stevens said, referring to a written pact co-signed by the EPP and Alde groups.
The two said they would work on EU reform, possibly through a convention, strengthen eurozone governance, and give a stronger role for the parliament in Brexit negotiations. Stevens dismissed the deal as "the same old story" and "not what the citizens want".
She said ECR could cooperate on issues such as the closing of borders to migration, improved cooperation between member states on the exchange of information in the fight against terrorism, as well as job creation and austerity measures.
"For us, it's very important not to overspend. We don't want more Europe. We don't want less Europe either, but we want a better-working Europe that delivers for our citizens," Stevens said. But she added that it was yet too early to say how cooperation would look like.
"We had some bad experiences in the past, in particular with Alde. The proof is in the pudding, we haven't yet tasted the pudding," she said.