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Bold sustainability ambitions in the European Union

Already in July, Ursula von der Leyen made clear that the new European Commission has bold ambitions to tackle climate change: The European Union must become an example of how to live sustainably. In this regard, energy efficiency and circular economy are central to the European way of life.

Frans Timmermans and the European Green Deal

The European Green Deal will be the guide for this ambitious transition, targeting among other things, an emission reduction of 50% to 55% by 2030. This target is about 10-15% higher than the current 2030 climate and energy framework. The Commissioner in charge of the Green Deal will be the Dutchman, Frans Timmermans, who also holds the position of first Executive Vice-President of the next European Commission. In his hearing in the European Parliament on 8 October, he urged the European Parliament to be ambitious and lead by example in the world. To make a real difference with regards to global warming, the EU needs to focus on talks with its global partners, according to Timmermans. He feels like he has got a strong mandate, since according to statistics, 9 out of 10 European citizens want the EU to act decisively on climate change.

Concretely, Timmermans will propose a draft Climate Law within the first 100 days of his mandate. This law will put into legislation the EU’s climate ambitions, but most importantly determine the in between steps to be taken to reach these goals. Timmermans is strongly considering using infringement procedures against Member States not complying with the EU’s upcoming climate laws and its ambitions. Furthermore, the Climate Pact will engage citizens with the EU’s climate policy which would make legislation seem less ‘top-down’.

Virginijus Sinkevičius and the European Circular Economy

Three years after its adoption, the Circular Economy Action Plan can be considered fully completed. Its 54 actions have now been delivered or are being implemented. Together with Timmermans, Lithuanian Virginijus Sinkevičius will however increase the ambitions in the field of the circular economy. Sinkevičius stated during his hearing in the European Parliament on 3 October that if the EU ensured the complete circular use of just four materials (steel, aluminum, cement and plastic) – which goes further than the existing Circular Economy Action Plan – EU’s industrial emissions would be cut in half.

Sinkevičius believes that a new action plan can involve three major areas:

  • First, by examining the ways in which the EU produces and consumes. He mentioned particular further action on eco-design and more focus on reuse and repair. This strand could also integrate circularity in other sectors such as textiles, construction, food and ICT.
  • Second, by helping consumers make informed choices.
  • Third, by moving beyond recycling. Waste should not only be minimized, but prevented completely in areas such as textiles and construction.

Environment Council

Not only the European Commission wants to increase the European ambitions regarding climate change and sustainability, but also the Council realizes their importance. On 4 October, Environment Ministers held a debate on the EU’s strategic long-term vision for a climate neutral economy and adopted conclusions on climate change, which set out the EU’s position for the UN climate change meetings (COP25) in Chile in December 2019. The Council called for action to promote circularity systemically across the value chain, including from the consumer perspective, in key sectors including textiles, transport, food as well as construction and demolition. The Council also stressed the need for more measures on batteries and plastics.

 

 

 

 

Habemus Presidentus

After long and difficult negotiations, the European leaders have come to an agreement on the four top jobs in the European Union. After all, none of the previously speculated candidates have been rewarded for their campaign.

The EU’s top jobs go to:

  • President of the European Council is Charles Michel (Renew Europe) from Belgium;
  • (nominated) President of the European Commission is Ursula von der Leyen (EPP) from Germany;
  • (nominated) President of the European Central Bank is Christine Lagarde (EPP) from France;
  • (nominated) High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is Joseph Borell (S&D) from Spain.
  • President of the European Parliament will be David Sassoli (S&D) from Italy.

It is clear that there is now no geographical balance between the Western and Eastern European countries and the above nominations have been a result of days-long tough negotiations. Traditionally the function of the Presidency of the European Commission is reserved for the biggest group in the European Parliament, which has been the EPP. Since the introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten process (by the Lisbon Treaty), the European Parliament even tried to institutionalize the nomination of the President of the European Commission, but after all the European Council has the final word to decide over this role. The Spitzenkandidat of the EPP, Manfred Weber, lost substantial support in the last weeks and there were doubts regarding his nomination even within his own party. Most of the criticism was due to his lack of experience in the executive branch. Therefore, there have been a few alternative names floating, including Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, but also German Chancellor Angela Merkel as possible successor of Jean-Claude Juncker.

Frans Timmermans, however, seems to be the biggest loser. During the G20 Summit in Osaka, Angela Merkel proposed the social democrat Frans Timmermans as the new President of the European Commission. However, EPP was not in favour of this solution. alongside with the V4 countries that opposed Timmermans because, as Vice-President of the Commission, he often criticized these countries due to their issues with the rule of law.

In the afternoon of 2 July, the name of German Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, emerged as a new option as President of the European Commission. She is German and knows Brussels very well, but she also speaks French, something that made her also a good option for French President Emmanuel Macron. In return, Macron proposed Christine Lagarde as the new president of the ECB. Gender balance has thus been achieved and in order to meet the geographical balance, the Member States proposed the Bulgarian Sergei Stanishev as new President of the European Parliament. However, the European Parliament has the right to choose its new president and the MEPs voted in favour of David Sassoli (S&D) from Italy.

Ursula von der Leyen is yet to be confirmed by the European Parliament as the President of the Commission, however, it seems that the Socialists and the Greens are not satisfied with the choice of the Member States.

Informal European Council meeting kicks-off the process to agree on new leaders of the EU top jobs

Yesterday, 28 May, EU leaders gathered in Brussels for an informal summit following the European Parliamentary elections. Under the first agenda item, the state of play of the populist parties was discussed among the Heads of States. Despite the loss of votes for the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Social Democrats (S&D) the electoral gains of the anti-EU parties remained relatively limited. In the new European Parliament, pro-European parties will be able to keep their majority. Furthermore, centrist parties, such as the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) and the Greens won quite some seats. President of the European Council Donald Tusk argued that Brexit helped as a “vaccine” against the hard-liner slogans of the Eurosceptic parties. Tusk additionally said that even the most anti-EU parties had to change their rhetoric from abandoning the EU to reform the EU, which, according to him, is a positive development.

However, the most important topic of yesterday’s summit was not about Brexit, but about the future of the European Union and the future European top jobs. The European leaders decided not to discuss names of individual candidates but mandated Tusk to look for a new President of the European Commission through engaging in a dialogue with both the European Parliament and the Member States. Tusk hopes to present a candidate Commission President by the June European Council meeting (20-21 June), supported by both European leaders and the European Parliament. Factors that play a role for the top job are experience, geographical distribution, power distribution between the big and small countries, demography, political party affiliation and gender balance. As only the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is now a woman, it will be interesting to see whether the future top jobs will effectively be held by women. This could of course help the ambition of Margrethe Vestager as next President of the European Commission.

Other candidates in the race are the Spitzenkandidaten of the European political parties. The Party of European Socialists (PES) will push for the candidacy of Frans Timmermans, as he has the best profile and the most executive experience. On the other hand, the EPP is still the biggest party in the European Parliament, but EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber lacks executive experience, both at national and at EU level, which seems a prerequisite to hold the office of Commission President. Therefore, current Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, also EPP, could be a compromise candidate if Germany accepts a French instead of a German candidate.

The stakes are high because in addition to the position of Commission President (currently Jean-Claude Juncker), also a new President of the European Council, a new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (currently Federica Mogherini), a new Parliament President (currently Antonio Tajani) and a new President of the European Central Bank (currently Mario Draghi) will have to be elected. According to EU diplomats, Tusk will eventually draw up a list of one candidate for each of the four posts. A separate procedure for the presidency of the European Central Bank will be followed.

23 May: Kick off European Parliament Election

Today, the European Parliamentary elections kick off with citizens going to the polls in two Member States, namely the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (UK). As the UK has been granted a ‘flextension’, meaning that the Brexit deadline has been extended until 31 October, the UK is now obliged to participate in the elections. This also means that the number of MEPs will remain 751 instead of 705. However, the British government is trying to avoid that British MEPs will actually take their seats.

One of the first things to keep an eye on is the turnout. In recent years the turnout has drastically decreased which only seems to confirm that for many people the European elections remain second-order elections.

With regard to the seat allocation of the new European Parliament, there is only a small chance that the existing informal majority of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will continue. Both parties are predicted to lose many seats: the latest poll predicts the EPP to lose 48 seats, while the S&D is likely to lose 39 seats. Combined, they would lose 87 seats which would mean that the traditional parties have a shortage of 61 seats to form a majority. In addition, it is not clear what Fidesz, the party of Hungarian President Viktor Orbán which is currently suspended from the EPP, is going to do after the elections. The third biggest group, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) together with  La République En Marche! (LREM)  of French President Emmanuel Macron will form the new “Renaissance” group, which would have 105 seats in the new European Parliament. Some look to the Greens-EFA as a possible coalition partner for the traditional parties, but a working majority between the EPP, the S&D and the Greens-EFA will be difficult as the latter are predicted to win only 55 seats and furthermore, their positions are diverging in various topics.

At this moment in time, it is clear that there is no real ‘winner’ and the European Parliament is expected to be more divided than ever: the appearance of new parties will add to the division. The Italian 5 Stars Movement announced they will leave the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group and Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini established another new party, the European Alliance of People and Nations (ex-ENF). Salvini’s group is now projected to have 74 seats according to Politico and will consequently be the fourth biggest in the next European Parliament. In addition, the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage (ex-UKIP) and other new and unaffiliated parties will most likely take away a few seats from the currently bigger groups. On top of this,  the eventual exit of the UK will be detrimental to the total number of seats of both the S&D and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

A fragmented European Parliament with more radical parties will make it difficult for MEPs to find allies within the groups and will consequently make decision-making in the only directly elected EU institution challenging.

EU Elections: The Final Debate

After Florence (2 May) and Maastricht (29 April), the European parties’ Spitzenkandidaten  debated yesterday in the European Parliament in Brussels. Many anticipated a more animated debate than the previous ones, but at the end the debate once again left most viewers unsatisfied.

One of the few themes on which a clear difference between the candidates’ opinions was visible, was the issue of tackling climate change. Manfred Weber (EPP) stated that the EU should become climate neutral by 2050, but he also warned for the cost of certain measures. Frans Timmermans (S&D) stressed the efforts he and his party, but also the Greens already took. The Greens’ Ska Keller addressed Weber on this theme by confronting him that he voted against ambitious climate objectives in the European Parliament. On top of that, Margrethe Vestager (ALDE) added that current Commissioner for Climate, Arias Cañete “didn’t make amazing work because he is EPP, he did that because he is part of the Commission.” It was clear that Weber and the dominant position of the EPP were under direct attack from the other candidates.

The real surprise of the evening was when Timmermans suggested to form a progressive coalition with the leftist forces in the European Parliament, including the Greens and the European Left Party. With this left coalition, Timmermans wants to break the center right’s monopoly in the European institutions. Still, based on recent polls, Timmermans’ coalition would only have 250 (out of 751) seats in the new European Parliament, clearly not enough to form a majority. In addition, if the UK eventually leaves the EU, the European Parliament will be left with only 705 seats, but the S&D will lose also the seats of the Labour party (while Brexit would not affect the EPP). Timmermans also left some space to work together with the new centrist-liberal Renaissance group, but the question is whether they want to work together with the European Left. All in all, the proposed progressive coalition would find it hard to maintain a majority.

For Margrethe Vestager, it was her first time participating in a debate since Guy Verhofstadt was the face of ALDE in the Florence and Maastricht debates. She missed this opportunity to clarify the new direction of ALDE and to explain what the cooperation with the party of the French President Emmanuel Macron concretely entails. Still, she did make a good impression regarding her own experience as Competition Commissioner.  She said on taxes: “A tax haven is a place where everyone pays their taxes.” A not so subtle hint to the tech companies she attacked the last years.  Also Timmermans reacted that “we should keep asking Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant: Amazon when are you going to start paying taxes?”.

The Brussels debate was the last European-wide Spitzenkandidaten debate in the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections. The lead candidates will now continue their campaigns in the EU Member States until 23 May when the elections will officially start.

European elections 2019: The French perspective

As the European elections are approachingFrench political parties have a lot to debate about in the upcoming days. This time however, the issues that are debated, as well as the political parties involved, look somehow slightly – not too say radically – different from what France has been used to, particularly since the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of the French Republic. 

The end of the left-right political spectrum? 

Since the French presidential election in 2017, French voters have witnessed a change in their country’s political spectrum as every political debate in France over European politics seems now to revolve around France’s two main political parties: President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). However, these two parties cannot be identified as traditional left-wing or right-wing parties since neither LREM nor RN want to position themselves on a left-right political spectrum. Indeed, Macron’s party proudly supports unapologetic pro-European liberal policies while RN openly wants to put forward an anti-EU and protectionist agenda. French politics do not seem to be about left or right anymore, but rather on who is a pro-European liberal and who is not. 

Towards a clash between liberals and anti-liberals 

Over the past fifty years, French politics have barely known a situation in which at least one of the two traditional parties (France’s Parti Socialiste or the French right-wing party Les Républicains) was neither in first nor in second position in the polls for the European elections. Even though the latest polls slightly differ on who will be the other one’s challenger, LREM and RN will probably reach at least 20% of French voters respectively, giving them the certainty to have a minimum of 20 seats each in the next European Parliament (and a few more in the case of Brexit). A recent poll even predicted Marine Le Pen’s victory over Macron’s pro-European party with 24% for RN against 21.5% for LREM, setting the scene for a clash between a liberal vision of Europe and an anti-liberal one. Other French parties are lagging behind with 14% for France’s right-wing party Les Républicains (LR) and with around 8% for La France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical left party. Right behind are the Greens of Europe-Écologie Les Verts (EELV) with 7%, closely followed by France’s traditional left-wing party, the Parti Socialiste, which has rarely been so low in the pollswith only 5%. 

Immigration, climate change, taxation 

The acknowledgement of the recent renewal of France’s political spectrum should however not make one forget that the topics discussed in France have also moved from rather traditional issues (employment, housing, economy) to more trending ones such as the fight against climate change, immigration, and taxation. While debating over Europe at the beginning of Aprillead French candidates put forward their respective ideas on how the EU should be reformed. Regarding immigration, RN’s young lead candidate Jordan Bardella (23 years) exposed his will to stop migrants at national borders while LREM’s Nathalie Loiseau, ex-Minister for European Affairs under President Macron, declared she only wanted the EU’s external borders to be reinforced”. As far as the environment was concerned, all the candidates agreed on the need to tackle this issue even though they differed on the concrete actions to be implemented. Lead candidate for La France Insoumise Manon Aubry stated that as rich multinational companies were “for the most part responsible of CO2 emissions”, they should be the ones to pay the biggest amount of taxes to finance the fight against climate change. 

The challenge of participation 

As no one can precisely predict which party will be the winner of the European elections in France, it is very likely that the abstention rate reaches at least 50%. Some polls even foretell a rate of 60% of abstentionism for the upcoming elections (77% among young French voters) compared to only 42.4% in 2014. More than ever, French political parties’ main challenge remains to reach out to these undecided voters in hope for a victory.  

The European elections in Hungary

Hungary joined the EU in 2004. The country’s political landscape, however, has drastically changed since then. Hungary was at the forefront of the end of communism, when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, and in the same year, the country transitioned from a communist party system to democracy after its constitution was heavily amended in 1989 and democratic elections took place in 1990. Since then, Hungary has been a democratic republic with a unicameral Parliament. However, many constitutional amendments enacted since the conservative Fidesz-KDNP party alliance won parliamentary elections in 2010, which has led to a democratic backslide.

Ever since, the country has been driven into a one-party system, with almost all power wielded by the prime minister and Fidesz political leader, Viktor Orban.

For the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections, Fidesz runs its campaign with a limited program: it basically consists of seven sentences about migration and protecting the Christian culture of Europe. With the very same messages, they were able to win a majority of the votes in last year’s governmental elections. This is due to the fact that of all EU members, Hungary has the worst press freedom after Bulgaria, according to Reporters without Borders. Moreover, the country also ranks as the second most corrupt, better than Bulgaria but worse than Romania (which like Bulgaria, is under EU supervision under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism). Orban and his Fidesz party have launched a serious media campaign already years ago, which peaked in an anti-immigration media campaign that featured unflattering photos of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and billionaire philanthropist George Soros earlier this year.

Not surprisingly, this resulted in serious criticism from politicians all over Europe and after a heated debate in Brussels in mid-March, and Fidesz’s membership was suspended by the European Parliament’s biggest grouping, EPP.

Nevertheless, the most recent projections suggest Orban’s Fidesz party will comfortably win the European elections with over 50% of the votes. This would result in 12-13 MEP seats. It is not yet clear if the EPP would benefit from these seats, as no decision has been made over the suspension and the future membership of Fidesz after the elections. Furthermore, Orban recently met with Italy’s Matteo Salvini and although no concrete plans were announced, it is clear that the two have been in agreement over their vision for Europe – particularly on migration.

The opposition parties are lagging far behind Fidesz: the far-right Jobbik and the right-wing MSZP, which currently poll between 11-14% in various polls could each win three seats in the new European Parliament. In the case of MSZP, these would go to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Jobbik does not currently belong to any European political grouping.

The last party with a chance of gaining seats is the social liberal DK, led by former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. It could potentially gain two MEPs for the S&D. Two parties that poll below the electoral threshold of 5% might possibly have a chance of securing an MEP: the green LMP, followed by the social-liberal Momentum. The upstart liberal party, Momentum has top candidates including Katalin Cseh, member of ALDE’s Team Europe.

The turnout for the elections is predicted to be below 30%, which is also thanks to this anti-EU propaganda of Fidesz.

The European elections in the Netherlands

Another (national) election?

After the Dutch Senate elections on 27 March, new elections will be held at the end of this month for the European Parliament (EP). The big winner at the Dutch Senate elections was Thierry Baudet of Forum voor Democratie (FvD), a Right-Populist party. Although the Dutch Senate elections are regional elections, it does reflect how the parties could score during the European Parliamentary elections. Therefore, the elections of May also seem to be more focused on national issues than European themes, and especially to what extent Thierry Baudet and his party can break through on the European stage.

Baudet Vs Rutte

The polls differ slightly regarding the precise distribution of seats, but the trend is clear: the fight for votes at the European Parliamentary elections will be between Thierry Baudet, leader of the new Eurosceptic party, and the current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. According to the polls (Politico), Rutte’s VVD would win 2 seats, bringing the total number of seats up to 5. FvD could also enter the European Parliament with 5 seats. Moreover, research from I&O shows that the number of votes would mainly be a matter of turnout as the parties that succeed the most in mobilizing their supporters to vote are going to do well. This is exactly what FvD anticipates too as the same research shows that parties with more outspoken positions, such as FvD, raise the average turnout.

For the political groups at European level, ALDE remains the biggest in the Netherlands – both VVD and D66 are members. FvD indicated that it intends to join the Group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Following the good results in the local Dutch elections, the FvD is set to reinforce the ECR’s ranking. However, the FvD’s potential accession to the ECR will not take place without discussions: ChristenUnie (CU) is also part of the ECR Group and has already stated that they will not support FvD’s intention to join the ECR. The CU even said that they would object to the FvD becoming a member since both parties differ when it comes to priorities for the future of the EU. While the CU is in favour of a reform of the EU, the FvD has long advocated for a ‘Nexit’ – the Netherlands leaving the EU. Still, the CU will most probably have only a limited say in the matter because it is projected to win 1 seat compared to FvD’s 5 seats. Additionally, the FvD has softened its tone recently with regards to a ‘Nexit’, possibly to pave the way for their accession to the ECR Group and because of the negative impact of a possible Brexit. The damage of Brexit could be beneficial for traditional parties like VVD trying to break Baudet’s momentum.

The Dutch Spitzenkandidaten

Although the focus seems to be on the two largest parties in the polls, it should not be forgotten that there are two Dutch politicians running as Spitzenkandidaten to become the next President of the European Commission. The best known is Frans Timmermans, currently First Vice-President of the European Commission. However, when taking a closer look at the polls, Timmermans’ PVDA will lose 1 seat (from 3 to 2) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) at EU-level will also not win the majority of the seats which is the precondition to nominate the next President of the European Commission. The extra visibility that Timmermans receives as a Spitzenkandidat for S&D does not seem to result in any extra profit for him and his party. This is the contrary for the other Spitzenkandidat, Bas Eickhout. Eickhout is a member of the European Parliament for Groenlinks, a party that has been growing in recent years, and, together with Ska Keller, they are the frontrunners for the Greens in the fight for the Presidency for the European Commission. Moreover, his Groenlinks party is likely to win an extra seat in the EP following the elections.

Status quo?

At the end, the number of pro-European and Eurosceptic parties seems to remain more or less stable in the Netherlands. The difference lies mainly in the shifting of votes between the existing parties. The electoral profit of FvD is mainly due to the loss of PVV, which won 4 seats in 2014, but now it seems to lose 2 seats. Also, the electoral profit of the pro-European Green Left, for example, seems to be mainly due to the loss of D66, another pro-European party.

 

The Maastricht Debate: potential future European Commission president?

On 29 April, and for the first time in the current European Parliamentary elections campaign, Spitzenkandidaten of the European political parties debated each other on current and future European topics. Manfred Weber, the leader of the largest political party, the European People’s Party, did not participate. According to a snap poll after the debate, this first round was won by Frans Timmermans, the candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES).

The themes of the debate were digital Europe, sustainable Europe, and future of Europe. Regarding digital Europe, it was clear that all the lead candidates wanted stricter regulation for technological companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. On the issue of climate change, each candidate expressed support to the student climate strikers, except Jan Zahradil (Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe). In addition, both Timmermans and Bas Eickhout (European Green Party) pledged to make climate policy a priority for the new European Commission. In the last part of the debate, the candidates had the chance to present their proposals for a more prosperous Europe. Asked if the candidates would support a gender-equal Commission, all candidates committed themselves to a more gender-balanced institution.

In addition to these discussions, every candidate had the chance to indicate what their priorities would be for the next European Commission. Timmermans was in favor of better cooperation with Africa. Guy Verhofstadt (The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party) stated a joint European immigration policy as his priority. It should come as no surprise that Eickhout said that combating climate change would become a determining factor in all EU policies. Zahradil stated that the EU should listen more to the citizens in the Member States. Finally, Violeta Tomic (Party of European Left) stated that the trade agreements that Europe concludes must become stricter in order to fit European standards.

While the debate was ongoing in Maastricht, Dr2 Consultants was front row at the Future of Europe lecture by EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier (European Peoples’ Party), at the Catholic University of Leuven. While Barnier is not an official Spitzenkandidat, he has previously indicated his ambition for the most important job in the EU.

In his speech about the future of Europe, Barnier was optimistic, but he stressed that Europe needs to renew its capacity now to protect its citizens and borders. According to Barnier, protecting and projecting Europe is what people expect of the EU but due to a lack thereof, populist parties are on a rise on the whole continent. “The European dream is not part of the past, but we must shape it now.”