As Germany and Italy decide the shape of their future governments, the EU is making slow progress. It is abandoning lofty schemes and determined to focus on people’s real problems.
This Sunday, March 4th, much of Europe will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of two polls: First, the verdict of Germany’s Social Democrats on the pact with the Christian Democrats to form a new Grosse Koalition (known as GroKo), and second, the Italian general election. The EU has plenty at stake in both.
The SPD-CDU/CSU pact, which styles itself a “treaty” (no less), calls for “a new awakening for Europe. A new dynamic for Germany. A new unity for our country.” It includes a detailed plan for EU development that partly coincides with Emmanuel Macron’s.
If the coalition efforts founder, Angela Merkel will have to settle for a minority government or for fresh elections. In either case, this “new awakening” for Europe would face a setback.
The Social Democrats who are most opposed to the deal – spurred on by Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the party’s youth organization, or Jusos – base their animosity not on opposition to Europe.
Fear of the AfD
Rather, they fear that the pact with the CDU/CSU writes the death warrant of the SPD. They also do not want to allow the highly eurosceptic Alternative for Germany, AfD, to become the largest opposition party.
But after the failed attempts to build a coalition between the Christian Democrats, the Greens and liberals – the latter with a different vision of European integration – the agreement between Merkel and her allies and the Social Democrats is the only way to avoid an uncertain election.
It would be uncertain because the coalition attempts have already taken their toll: Various polls suggest that, in a new election, the combination of the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats – once upon a time the two dominant parties in German politics – would no longer even command a majority in the parliament.
Under such circumstances, Germany would become less pro-European. In any event, if the SPD grass roots endorse the deal, it will be Merkel’s last government. The appointment of a new CDU secretary general is a first step.
Italy’s new electoral system
Meanwhile, Italy is voting on the basis of a new electoral system, the real impact of which is unknown. The Italian election is being held in the shadow of a threefold crisis: The economy, immigration and local, national and European representation.
But, one could argue, these are crises that are present in many European countries, despite the economic recovery. In Italy, with the third-largest economy of the EU-27, the issues at stake in this election are ones being debated throughout the EU: Sovereignty, austerity and doubts about the kind of eurozone that is needed, restrictions on immigration, regional concessions etc.
While this Italian election comes at a time when the EU has suffered a notable loss of popularity, it is held in a country that for many years embraced it as part of its essence. The risk at the voting booths in Italy, however, is not europhobia, but euro-apathy (if the French concept of morosité may be thus translated).
Nevertheless, one important sign that the electoral outcome may not yield any true political shake-up is that the stock market in Italy has seemed calmer than in other parts of the EU and the world.
Europe: Advancing too fast?
The German and Italian polls aside, there is a fear in Europe of advancing too fast, thereby providing the eurosceptics with an even greater boost. Although headway is being made in certain areas – finally embarking on strengthened cooperation in defense,for example, and modernizing if not increasing the EU budget, despite the setback represented by Brexit – a degree of retreat is evident in general.
This is evident in the decision to on what to do with the British seats in the European Parliament post-Brexit. French President Macron had advocated for keeping them for a new electoral element — a transnational list of candidates voted in on a pan-European, rather than a strictly national basis (as is the case now).
While such a step would have been very attractive from a pro-European viewpoint, the European Parliament instead chose to reduce the 705 seats and distribute some among member states that had been underrepresented in previous arrangements.
What is also unfortunate is that there also is a lack of storytelling, in the sense of a narrative that explains the EU’s evolution. The europhobes have contaminated the national and Europe-wide discourse of the europhiles, who are fearful of losing votes on this issue.
At the same time, one should note that – whether despite of or thanks to Brexit – Europe is actually making progress. There is a real effort underway to focus on people’s concrete problems.
As it stands, one could well argue that Europe is on the move, but it does not really know (yet) where it is heading. Or rather, it knows that, in view of public opposition in various countries, it no longer wants to go towards federalism. Even using that expression is now taboo.
***Editor’s Note: Adapted from Andres Ortega’s Global Spectator column, which he writes for the Elcano Royal Institute.
***Andrés Ortega is Senior Research Fellow at Royal Elcano Institute, Spain’s main think tank in international affairs, in charge of global governance and of a blog, Global Spectator. He has been twice (1994 to 1996, and 2008 to 2011), director of the Department of Analysis and Studies (Policy Unit) in President of the Government’s Office (Spain).
He was a long time commentator and editorial writer for El País, the highest-circulation daily newspaper in Spain. He has also served as the paper’s London and Brussels correspondent. From 2004 to 2008, he was the director of Foreign Policy magazine’s Spanish edition. He is also director of the Observatorio de las Ideas, a publication on ideas’ mining.
He holds a degree in political science from the Complutense University of Madrid and a Master’s degree in international relations from London School of Economics.
Among his publications are “La imparable marcha de los robots” (2017), “La fuerza de los pocos” (2007), and “La Razón de Europa” (1994His first novel, Sin alma, was published in Spain in 2012.