Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Opinion

European elections - can the centre hold?

  • The four largest political groups in the parliament already host national parties that have run into trouble for threats to baseline EU values (Photo: European Parliament)

Last month the European Parliament criticised Slovakia and Malta for attacks on judicial independence and media freedom.

This underlines that in the upcoming European parliament elections, the real threat to the EU isn't going to come from fringe parties.

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The Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) are going to grow, but they won't reach a majority by a long shot.

The trouble is going to come from within the mainstream - unless it is willing to rethink its alliances. Centrist political groups will still collectively hold a clear majority.

But that majority has some fishy elements.

The four largest political groups in the parliament all host national parties that have run into trouble for threats to baseline EU values.

And according to Politico's poll of polls data, almost all of those national parties are predicted to grow.

It's not just Hungary's Fidesz, sitting in the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), and Poland's PiS, sitting in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), that have been targeted by parliament for dismantling constitutional checks and balances.

Romania's SPD, Malta's Labour Party (PL) and Slovakia's Smer have all been chided for interfering with judicial independence, systematic corruption, and/or threats to press freedom.

They're part of the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group.

Similarly, leadership of the Czech Republic's Ano has also been pulled up for corruption and conflicts of interest that risk endangering the country's democracy.

Ano sits in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (Alde), and so does the problematic Romanian government's junior coalition partner.

Each of the largest four political groups in the European parliament has tried to shield their 'problem children' from criticism during parliamentary votes.

That's only going to get worse when their share of seats grows.

Difficult future parliament

It's going to become very difficult for the European Parliament to condemn serious violations of civil liberties in the future.

Especially if the likes of Fidesz, or Ano or the PL can count not only on the support of their group, but probably also the support of an enlarged Eurosceptic ENF and EFDD.

In a worst-case scenario, we could see the centre-right EPP team up with authoritarians, as has happened, for example, in Austria and Bulgaria.

The EPP has not ruled out collaborating with the EFDD and ENF.

The EPP could come together with the ECR and those anti-values parties from the S&D and ALDE groups, plus new parties like Spain's Vox and currently non-aligned parties like Hungary's Jobbik.

Such an unholy alliance could deliver a majority according to current polling data.

But there is hope.

Based on current polling data, anti-values MEPs can expect to claim no more than 30 percent of seats.

Which leaves 70 percent of the house belonging to MEPs whose parties nominally support - or at least have not openly contested - basic standards to protect the rule of law, democratic pluralism and fundamental rights.

But for this pro-values bloc to work together, mainstream political groups are going to have to kick out their illiberal members.

The EPP is taking steps on Fidesz, although it is important to keep up the pressure and ensure that the suspension and internal investigation are not merely an effort to stall a decision on expulsion until after the elections.

Follow EPP example?

The S&D, Alde and the ECR should follow suit.

Otherwise centrists will end up giving parties with illiberal tendencies access to the heart of the European parliament's power and influence.

Liberties has developed a #Vote4Values: Elections Tracker 2019 to visualise for voters where anti-values MEPs sit in the European Parliament.

The tracker is based on data from Politico's poll of polls.

This would allow citizens to check if their preferred party is in bed with problematic parties from other countries. It could encourage voters to start asking political candidates why they are collaborating with parties attacking civil liberties.

And then we might see political groups in Brussels rethinking their membership or ruling out cooperation with particular problematic parties in advance of the election.

The tracker also visualises for users what kinds of pro-values coalitions MEPs could form, if the main political groups were to eject their troublesome members.

There are multiple possible pro-values coalitions.

There is no need for mainstream parties to hold themselves hostage to their rotten apples. Instead they can hold on to their values and rule in coalition with others that share them.

Author bio

Israel Butler is head of advocacy at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe.

John Morijn is Emile Noel Fellow at the Jean Monnet Centre of NYU Law School and teaches human rights law at the University of Groningen.

Disclaimer

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

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