Highlights of the Week: French Elections, Viktor Orbán in Brussels, Quarrel over Schulz

What happens in Brussels is not only about Brussels. Hardly a week passes by without a debate or a decision with repercussions on the rest of Europe or even the world. I am starting a series of articles to highlight some occurences and to share with others my thoughts on them. In this first attempt, I am briefly reflecting on the ongoing French elections and the crisis of socialism in Europe, Vitkor Orbán’s visit to the European Parliament and a renewed quarrel over former President Schulz‘ staff policies.

  1. French Elections and the Crisis of Socialism

No other topic maybe weights so much on the current debates in Brussels as the ongoing French elections. A noticeable relief went through EU circles when the results of the first round came out and Emmanuel Macron emerged as a clear favourite. The outcome was welcomed across European parties, as Members of Parliament (MEPs) from different groups had pledged their support for the young pro-European politician. Leading European politicians congratulated and backed Macron, including President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who exceptionally commented on the ongoing national elections.

Yet the spectre of Frexit – a French exit from the EU – is still looming over Brussels, as the eurosceptical Marine Le Pen came out second from the first round with no less than 21,3% of the vote. Even though the polls predict a 24% advance for the independent Macron over his contender, the recent surprises of Brexit and the Trump elections are still fresh in our memory. Moreover, the presidential elections are not the only challenge that we face in the near future. The legislative elections might be just as decisive, as the president will have to build his support in the parliamentary assembly. It is still unclear how either of the candidates would be able to build a strong basis for his or her government.

In the midst of all the euphoria surrounding the unexpected success of Macron, the first round struck a severe blow to the two main traditional parties in France. Especially the French socialist party experienced a bitter defeat, its candidate having gained only 6,4% of the vote. He acknolwedged his failure in a very solemn speech, in which, at the same time, he called for the strongest possible support for Macron – making a prominent distinction between a political adversary and an ennemy of the Republic.

I find it quite disheartening that a candidate, who – amid figures stained by fraud, extremism, potential conflict of interests, party dissidence, political ossiciliation – maybe showed most integrity during the campaign, earned so little recognition in the end. Despite his progressive views on Europe, he got very little sympathy from his fellow partisans – in France as well as in Europe. Sigmar Gabriel’s tweet in which he congratulated Macron for having won the first round as the ‚only pro-European candidate‘ neglects the progressive ideas with which his party colleague Hamon went into the race: a eurozone assembly, a European investment plan, a financial transaction tax, etc.

In the European context, the defeat of the French socialist party can be seen as part of a trend through which the socialists continusouly lose their influence. Matteo Renzi’s defeat in the Italian referendum, the disappointing result of the Dutch socialist party in the last parliamentary elections, the Labour fatigue in the UK illustrate a worrying decline. This decline is reflected at the European level, where the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are no longer part of the ruling coalition in the European Parliament and all the three main institutions being headed by a president of the European People’s Party (EPP). The European socialists are increasingly under threat of being marginalised, unless they make decisive steps to renew themselves.

  1. Orbán-Bashing in the European Parliament

After several weeks of heated debate over Hungary and a new law that would effectively close down the reknown Central European University in Budapest, Orbán has eventually given in to criticism. The Commission had previously sent a letter of formal notice expressing deep concerns about the disputed Higher Education law. Moreover, it criticised the Hungarian consultation ‚Stop Brussels‘ which was launched in April 2017 and promotes a distorted view on the EU. The EPP – of which Orbán’s FIDESZ party is also a member – declared on Saturday that Orbán had now agreed to comply with the Commission’s request during a meeting of the political group.

Viktor Orban_EP_Flickr
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Source: Flickr)

Since the beginning of the debate, Members of the Parliament voiced harsh criticism on the education bill and triggered off an inner-parliamentary debate in which other parties demanded the EPP to exclude FIDESZ from their party family. The debate culminated in a visit by Orbán to the European Parliament in the plenary session on Wednesday 26 April. The parliamentaries seized the occasion to denounce the Hungarian government’s behaviour. Gianni Pitella, leader of the S&D condemned the infringements on academic freedom and freedom of expression, along with the Hungarian government’s anti-EU attitude more generally. He vehemently reiterated the call on the EPP to exclude Orbán’s party – whose orientation he deemed contrary to the values of freedom and democracy – from their group.

The most remarkable intervention certainly came from Guy Verhofstadt. In his short speech, he described the transformation that Orbán has undergone from being a proponent of liberal democracy in the 90s to the creator of an illeberal state. In a very dramatic twist, Verhofstadt then challenges the Hungarian Prime Minister and asks him how far he will go – after closing down a university, controlling NGOs and restricting freedom of expression by controlling the media. Would he go as far as burning books on the square before the Hungarian Parliament?

The fact that Orbán came back on the closure of the CEU demonstrates not least the increasing weight and the ’soft‘ power of the European Parliament. The European Parliament cannot take, at this point, any decision that would directly result in effective sanctions of Hungary. But the increasing public pressure to which the European Parliament contributed, along with the prospect of being excluded from the EPP and hence from the biggest group in the European Parliament, were important enough for the Hungarian Prime Minister to eventually give in.

  1. Brussels‘ Quarrel over Schulz

On the 26 April, the European anti-fraud officed (OLAF) announced that it would not open an investigation into Martin Schulz who had been criticised for decisions on staff which he had taken when he was still President of the Parliament. Based on a preliminary analysis of information available, OLAF declared that no irregularties or indications of fraud could be found.

This decision came only one day before the Parliament voted over the discharge report on the management of the Parliament’s budget in the year 2015 when Schulz was still President. Once every year, the Parliament gives discharge to all EU institutions for managing the EU budget, which means that the Parliament ‚relieves‘ the EU institutions of their responsibility for spending the funds effectively and according to the rules. The vote on the discharge is always an occasion for the Parliament to also voice criticism or make suggestions for improvements with regards to how the budget is spent.

The most contentious issue in this year’s discharge to the Parliament were a couple of paragraphs that directly criticised staff decisions taken by the former President. The report points out that the President allegedly appointed people to managerial posts against the house rules and allocated special allowances to his cabinet staffers which were higher than the existing cabinet allowance. Moreover, it puts into questions the practice of long-term missions, alluding to the case of Schulz‘ former advisor and now electoral campaign leader Markus Engels who was sent to Berlin on such a long-term mission.

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Former President of the European Parliament Schulz (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Even though OLAF did not find any reasons to suspect irregularities or fraud, there was a majority in the plenary to adopt the report with these provisions. However, this has to be seen against the fact that the EPP is the biggest group and could build a coalition with other parties who were critical of Schulz. Ingeborg Gräßle, the chair of the committee for budgetary control, which is in charge of drafting the discharge report, is herself member of the German conservative party and arduously defended the controversial paragraphs. Hence, the allegations have to be seen against the electoral campaign that is getting under way in Germany and where Schulz is running as the main opponent to the candidate of the Christian Democrats Angela Merkel.

The adoption of the discharge report with the controversial paragraphs in plenary was criticised by the S&D group. They accuse the conservatives and their allies to misuse the discharge procedure for national political fights. This becomes evident insofar as the accusations are directed at the President, even though all his decisions were formally approved by the Parliament’s administration. The Secretary General, Klaus Welle being a German Christian Democrat, it would clearly not have been in the interest to point this out.

All in all, the issue appears as a political dispute where neither of the involved parties made a very praiseworthy apperance. While the S&D got caught in the centre of attention in a debate about dubious allocation of senior positions, the EPP is seen to engage into perfidious electoral campaign manoeuvres by taking profit of its majority in the European Parliament to influence the course of national politics. It is true that doubtful practices related to staff management and the budget have to be criticised, if they have taken place. This criticism can however easily turn into a risky and embarassing game when it is not substantiated by demonstrable facts and misused for political purposes.

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