After the European elections, the World Cup became the new hot topic. Only insiders were interested enough to follow closely the selection process of the new Commission President. Nevertheless, there were some quite interesting developments which are worth noting: the European elections were the most European in the history of the directly elected European Parliament (EP). In many countries, it was not only about national issues and the basic question: are you pro-European or Eurosceptic. There were more issues at stake.
Firstly, on institutional questions: it became much clearer that there is a triangle of institutions, no such thing as “the” EU and that institutions play different roles. The question of who will be in the driving seat became quite important – the European Council, as has been the case since the financial crisis, or again the proto-government (called the European Commission) or the European Parliament?
Secondly, on future European policy: somewhat hidden behind the new Spitzenkandidaten lurked several other questions: what will the future Europe look like? What are the next steps? More or less integration? Austerity or investment policy? More or less regulation? It became clear that many MEPs see themselves as representatives of European citizens but also as agents of “more Europe” as a general solution to local, regional, national, and global problems. Will the European political parties remain loose alliances, or transform into real political actors?
The European Parliament Is A Winner
The EP has gained in maturity. It now counts among its ranks strengthened factions of Eurosceptic MEPs who will voice protest against some facets of European integration and bring together those who want to express frustration about the EU’s elitist approach. Sometimes, this unfortunately goes along with spreading far right and xenophobic messages. The new EP is also more representative of citizens opposing the current Commission policy of permanent banking rescue combined with austerity, the Troika policy, the repeated intrusions into national industrial relations systems, the promotion of decentralised collective bargaining, so-called employment-friendly reforms, flexibility and the deconstruction of collective bargaining coverage.
These protests are fuelled by some NGOs and trade unions that, however, avoid nationalistic rhetoric. The victory of the Front National and UKIP is a warning signal – it could become much worse. These parties also favour a change of policy but on the basis of a comeback of nationalistic approaches. Trade unions promote a change of policy, based on European integration with a much stronger social dimension.
It should come as no surprise that trade unions are pushing for stronger participation rights. For instance the German trade unions would not have come out in support of European integration without the parallel establishment of co-determination in the Coal and Steel Industry. The far-reaching codetermination in this crucial industrial sector was established in 1951, the same year when the six founding countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) signed the Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).
During the years after the financial crisis of 2008, it was on the basis of “codetermination” that German industry and trade unions negotiated short-time working schemes which were one condition to smooth the effects of the crisis and to maintain jobs. Unfortunately many people in the European institutions have forgotten this link. Consequently, they do not understand the lack of enthusiasm of many European trade unions to embark on a ship heading for austerity and downsizing participation rights. The new Commission President was recently asked if he would promote a strengthening of participation rights and he responded in the affirmative, claiming that he is convinced that a stronger social base, un socle social, is needed.
Shifting Powers In The European Union
The ongoing shift of power from the Council to the Parliament is supported by trade unions. On this voluntaristic line, a majority of the MEPs agree as well, and that is the reason why the Socialists supported a Christian Democratic candidate as Commission President. These MEPs are joining forces to shift Europe more in the direction of supranational democracy, away from intergovernmental agreements in the tradition of the Congress of Vienna as was the case in recent years: economic governance, the six pack, the two pack, reversed qualified majority voting, the debt brake, all based on the Fiscal Treaty – and all these measures are being opposed by the trade union movement.
The Parliament constituted itself as a quite powerful European actor against the Council which continues to work behind closed doors, without too much transparency or democratic control. The counter-model of opacity and lack of democratic control and accountability is the Troika. The new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised to abolish this undemocratic body and the EP will hopefully continue to push forcefully for its abolition. There should also be more transparency, control and accountability in other fields, in particular on the new permanent feature of banking rescue which swallowed up the colossal sum of 1.839,5 billion Euro (between 2008 and 2012) or 14.2% of 2012 GDP. The more people in and outside the European Parliament who push in that direction, the better. Steps in this direction would be the first act of a tiny democratic revolution.
The second act would be to move not only the democratic agenda forward, but also the political agenda with a strong social dimension. Many mistakes have been made in recent years, not only the austerity policy, pinning growth to the ground, and fuelling an increase of social inequalities, which were already at the root of the financial crisis. In Europe there are more people unemployed or at risk of poverty than ever before. During the great depression in the United States 15 million people were unemployed, in Europe today there are more than 25 million. Moreover 123 million European citizens are at risk of poverty, about one quarter of the population. The anti crisis policy went in the wrong direction and worsened the situation. Many European banks are still zombies, surviving thanks to subsidies but unable to fulfil their economic functions.
A New Start With Juncker?
From the European Commission, still the old Barroso one for the time being, we hear a quite different sound: It is the Europe 2020 revival band on tour singing the „end of crisis“ song, selling this renewed Lisbon strategy as a post crisis agenda even though it is no more than a cheap surrogate for an ambitious social program. It seems that the Commission has not understood the signs of changing times. Conditions for a break with neoliberal ideology are more and more present. More social progress is desperately needed. For instance on corporate taxation so as to avoid ridiculously low tax rates for big multinationals. Profits have to be taxed where they are created. A new ambitious social program is needed including a push for stronger information and consultation rights as well as board-level participation as part of the European social model. It might be too early to say whether Europe is slowly moving in a good direction, the first medicine might be applied in homeopathic doses.
However, there are encouraging signs. The EP succeeded in stopping the downward trend of the participation rate from 63% in 1979 to 43% in 2009. In 2014 it moved slightly up to 43.1%. Another positive sign: the European Council couldn’t prevent the shift of power towards the EP. With Juncker, the Commission has a leader who might bring it back on track after a decade of power shifting towards the Council and an incremental loss of initiative of the Commission itself. The debate around the book “Capital in the 21st Century” by Thomas Piketty shows that the phenomenal increase of social inequalities is no longer tolerated. It might be too early to say that the wind has turned, but at least Europe’s move in the wrong direction has been brought to an end.