Thursday

22nd Feb 2024

Opinion

EPP Spitzen-race: choice between Coke Light and Coke Zero

  • Posters at the European People's Party congress in Helsinki this week, advertising Manfred Weber's candidacy (Photo: EPP)

For me, as a Czech MEP elected in 2004, the EU was an opportunity to build upon all the principles I thought European integration represented: the single market, free trade, and the four fundamental freedoms.

We were pre-economic crisis, pre-Lisbon treaty, pre-migration crisis, pre-Brexit, and the air was electrified with opportunity.

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  • His rival, Alexander Stubb (pointing), here on a Lapland retreat (Photo: Finnish government)

However, it was not long before the EU started to buckle under the weight of its own ambitions.

The vision of flexible and effective cooperation based on consensus rather than compulsion, began to slip through my fingers.

I grew alarmed at how Brussels thought it could only wrestle back control of a crisis by taking further powers away from national governments.

I saw with every new power gained, the EU begin to lose the only commodity that ever really mattered: the trust and confidence of the people.

Neither practical nor pragmatic

As the storm clouds gathered, rather than focusing on practical and pragmatic solutions that reformed and improved what the EU already had in place, the EU started to pursue an integrationist ideology without any meaningful democratic support of European capitals or the people.

In the name of "more Europe" it came forward with arbitrary mechanisms, fiscal transfers and relocations schemes,

Notable amongst the new ideas to make the EU more "democratic" whilst taking further powers from national governments was the 'Spitzenkandidat' (lead candidate) process.

If those watching it had poised themselves for a process that would reinvigorate the debate around the future of Europe with campaigns of deeply held beliefs and bold new ideas, they were in for disappointment.

As the Spitzenkandidat process starts again for only the second time since its creation, the EPP Group will select its lead candidate in Helsinki this week.

Amongst the choreographed friendly rivalry, there are still a lot of policy blanks to fill in.

Weber vs Stubb

Manfred Weber has presented himself as the conservative candidate, who is defined by the old federal idea of Europe, but nevertheless wants to speak on behalf of the entire centre-right.

The EPP is quickly attempting to rewrite history to support this campaign, by criticising the EU's policies on migration that they helped vote through and create under Weber's leadership.

A quick look on Votewatch would reveal the EPP voting record looks an awful lot like the rest of the grand coalition and the Socialists.

Alex Stubb on the other hand has presented himself as the EPP incarnation of .Macron – the digital and liberal candidate of the 21st century, who also believes the EU should be defined as a union of values.

The fact that Stubb, the long-term EU institutional insider, is sold as the fresh, alternative candidate, gives us some insight as to how the desire for meaningful change and new ideas has stalled here in Brussels.

Stubb v Weber has been promoted as though it were Ali v Foreman all over again, but in reality, it is like making a choice between Coke Zero and Coke Light.

What we have really been handed, is a very cordial internal EPP discussion, which does much more to promote the EPP and its two candidates, than provide soul searching regarding the future of Europe within the EPP Group. All PR, and no reform.

My biggest fear is that it won't matter at all who wins and who loses in the EPP race; because the only real objective is maintaining the status quo and keeping the wheels in Brussels turning at any cost.

The Spitzenkandidat process was never intended to prompt genuine debate over what kind of Europe we want, because Brussels sees the EU as a zero-sum game: you must either believe in a fully federalised Europe - or you don't believe in the EU at all.

I believe that there must be another way. Indeed, I see this as the last real opportunity to secure the survival of the EU.

Despite talk of do less and do better, big on big things, and small on small things, Brussels has never given any serious thought as to the positive effects a scaled-back EU could have – an EU delivering the basics, with a controlled budget, returning unneeded powers back to the capital cities, a multi-currency EU, and a firm but fair immigration policy driven by member states.

Do I believe the Spitzenkandidat process should lead automatically to a new Commission president appointment, elected by the European Parliament? No.

Do I believe that we need a candidate for European Commission president that is genuinely dedicated to reforming the EU, with the support of its directly elected national leaders? Yes.

And because of this, first and foremost I believe that someone has to be there asking and answering the difficult questions, discussing the good the bad and the ugly of it all.

The EU desperately needs to be rocked 'n' rolled, and I am happy to start beating the drum in order to help shape an EU for the people and not Brussels.

Jan Zahradil is a Czech MEP and president of ACRE, and the only Spitzenkandidat so far on behalf of both the ECR and ACRE

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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