Guest post by Felipe Cuelho
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The constellation of power in Brussels is undergoing an epochal shift. While President Juncker’s visit last week to Washington cemented his legacy as a pro-atlanticist, it’s impossible to ignore his lame duck existence. With elections coming up in May 2019 for the next European Parliament – which elects Juncker’s successor – the knives are out. A politicized relationship with the US will be front and center in that campaign.
The parliamentary leader of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, (a German member of the Bavarian CSU) has led the charge in such politicization – a weekly, full page ad in Brussels’ widely read Politico, has criticized President Trump in personal terms over the last 18 months. He ably muscled Juncker into the Presidency with a “coalition” government with the Socialists and libertarian(ish) ALDE parties – knifing the Socialists out of that post when Martin Schulz resigned to run for the Chancellorship in Germany. He “burrowed in” Martin Selmayr, the former chief of staff to Juncker through a whirlwind promotion to deputy secretary-general of the EU’s executive arm, the Commission – followed by the resignation of the actual secretary-general, which left Selmayr with the crown. Whomever the next European Commissioner is, and whatever their party affiliation, Selmayr will figure large in their administration. He is a globalist par excellance, and anti-American to the core.
In the other corner, the Irish-American bomb-thrower preaching world revolution – Steve Bannon, CEO of Trump-Pence 2016 and former Chief strategist of the White House. Having developed a close relationship with the EFDD’s Nigel Farage, he embarked on a grand tour of European Eurosceptic parties, developing close links with the ENF’s Marine Le-Pen, Matteo Salvini and Geert Wilders (France, Italy and Netherlands, respectively). Farage – who’s eurosceptic UK Independence Party won first place in the 2014 European elections in the UK – has an unclear role in Bannon’s new project: Assuming Brexit happens, Farage will be out of the ring during this battle royale. Bannon has such allies as Ted Malloch, Trump’s favorite to be his EU ambassador and the “most feared man in Europe” a full throttle American patriot.
While no party has yet declared their Spitzenkandidat – their candidate to succeed Juncker as President – it seems clear that tectonic shifts in European politics will make this a very different election. The Socialists, currently the second largest party in Brussels, have been bleeding support all over Europe, not least in Germany, the most populous (and therefore most numerous in the Hemicycle) country in the EU. Other large concentrations of seats (Spain, Italy, France) have all undergone fundamental changes in their political situations: Italy is governed by an EFDD-ENF coalition (5* and Lega), Spain’s EPP was impeached from power (replaced by a socialist who holds a paltry 24% of seats), and France’s Macron has not picked a party to run with yet. Macron may be holding out to play kingmaker after the election, but has been the first victim of Selmayr’s machinations: An attempt to set up a European party was frustrated on technical grounds.
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Without going into the European left – a universe unto itself, which is also sure to profit nicely from the present politics – one thing we can say for certain: the ENF will not be enough by itself, nor will the EFDD see any advantage in relinquishing it’s perch as the “reasonable” eurosceptic movement – as opposed to the ENF’s burn-it-to-the-ground angle. David Cameron’s ECR group, encompassing a classical liberal movement in opposition to the dirigiste EPP may also emerge as a kingmaker.
If Bannon is to pull off another upset with his think-tank-cum-super-PAC, removing the EPP from the Throne, he will need to be promiscuous with his dark powers. With only one exception (the one-year-long Mansholt Commission), the Commission President has always been from the EPP, Socialist or ALDE parties. Bannon and his “barbarians” will have to ask themselves what their objective truly is: to deny the bipartiasn consensus of Socialist-EPP centrism another term (a scenario which could see an ALDE or ECR “safe pair of hands” in the top job), or to cultivate a longer-term alliance between europhobic european parties.
Whichever strategy he picks, the issue of the day is already before him: Europe’s 7-year budget is being decided at the moment, to great protestations from all opposition parties – even Macron’s En Marche has denounced the process, rightly positing that tying the next administration’s hands in their spending priorities – and potentially the one after that, too – makes a farce of the 2019 elections. Guy “baby Thatcher” Verhofstadt, ALDE’s leader, has made eurosceptic noises of late. Bannon’s ability to participate in opposition to that Weberian-Selmaryian straitjacket is a major test of whether he sees politics as the art of the possible, or if he plans to stay fully in the eurosceptic corner of the ring without informing the public policy process. One thing is for sure: if Weber wins this round, the low stakes of the election will make it all much less fun.