Aashna Agarwal (AA): Today, we will be discussing with Ambassador Neelam Deo, Director and Co-Founder of Gateway House, the elections to the European Parliament which are currently under way. Neelam, please tell us what happens in this election.
Neelam Deo (ND): Even though the elections are for the Parliament of the European Union, which is a single body constituted by all the 26 members of the European Union, the elections actually take place within the member states themselves. So the United Kingdom or France or Italy or Poland will elect a certain number of members to the European Parliament. Within the European Parliament itself, these members will form themselves into two or three different groupings. The dominant grouping so far has been the European Parliamentary Group, which consists of conservative and middle-of-the-road parties, such as the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Germany. The other two groupings consist of either the more ideological parties like the Greens, or the more socialist ones. The socialists have so far usually cooperated with the conservative parties.
Despite the fact that Europe remains a grouping of nation states and the nations of Europe still take the most important decisions regarding their countries, the elections to the European Parliament are very important. But as the phenomenon of Brexit has shown, there are quite wide misunderstandings about what the European Parliament or the EU Council does. And that is why in Britain, more than two years ago now, they opted to leave the European Union. But the European Parliament has, over the years, strengthened its role. It is now involved more in decision-making, including legislative authority. It has budgetary powers and oversight functions so that the European Union can seem to be more democratic because members are elected by each country.
AA: What are the more significant elements of this year’s election?
ND: This year’s election has, of course, been framed as a contest between centrist and liberal forces, as represented by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, or French president Macron, who has actually taken a lead in canvassing for these more centrist parties against the right-wing ones. The German-French collaboration has been the motor of the European Union so far, but there has been a rise of resentment within the other European countries. Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, for example, leads a movement of right-wing parties, there being many right-wing governments now in Europe. He is talking about creating an Italian-Polish motor instead of the German-French. Such parties have been accused of trying to capture the European Union, the European Parliament, from within – because, after Brexit, and the recognition by countries of how difficult it is to disentangle (themselves), particularly (from) trade policy, there is no appetite in European countries to leave the European Union. But Italy, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and other countries which used to be more liberal – like Austria, Finland and the Netherlands – all of these now have governments in which there is a strong right-wing party as a coalition partner. The attempt is to have more and more members to the European Parliament elected from these right-wing parties so that they can be a real check on what has been the traditional dominance of the centrist and socialist grouping within the Parliament.
AA: So what is the anticipated outcome?
ND: The anticipated outcome, of course, of any election is usually unknown until you actually get the results. But, the anticipation at the moment is that although the right-wing parties are believed to have the support of both the American president, who is himself designated right-wing, as well as the Russian president (even though there is no evidence shown so far that either has actually sought to interfere in the European parliamentary elections), it is expected that the right-wing parties will gain in the number of seats than they held in the previous Parliament. But this is likely to be offset by the fact that so will parties, like the Greens and the Liberal Party – more liberal than the centrist conservative forces, represented by Germany and France – gain.
There will not be a complete change in representation in the European Parliament. But both the hard right-wing and the hard left-wing will gain at the expense of centrist and socialist forces.
Will this have any impact on the policies that the EU Parliament supports and promotes? Yes, of course – now that it has more power than it had when the Parliament was first set up. We have to look at the outcome of this election as a more bitter fight between the right-wing and left-wing forces.
Yet, we have some factors which may muddy the potential outcomes. One, of course, is Brexit – again. The UK was supposed to have left the European Union before these elections but, since Prime Minister Theresa May in the UK has not been able to have her parliament accept any of her exit plans, the UK is still in the European Union and is also going to elect members of Parliament. It is expected that the Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, who had led the whole Brexit movement, is going strong and is likelier to get more members elected to the European Parliament even though its whole philosophy has been to leave Europe. But since they are still there, they are actually going to get more members elected.
The other new factor, which is causing a churn, is the scandal in the Austrian government, a hard right-wing government. The vice chancellor has just had to step down because he was caught in a financial corruption scandal and fresh elections have been announced in Austria. This has muddied who will get elected to the European Parliament from Austria.
With such things afoot, I anticipate that the struggle against the macro vision for Europe – which is more about coordination and unification of defense and foreign policy – will likely be defeated. The centrists will lose some ground to the right-wing parties, which want to have a Europe of ‘nations’ rather than countries, which are dominated by the European Union and the EU Parliament. But from the way the Brexit attempts to leave the European Union have gone, once a country joins, it is very difficult to leave. So, much as people may like to say that the nation-state remains the most important – and in many ways, it does, in day-to-day functioning – in other aspects, such as trade-commerce, and immigration, being a member of the Union is critical. Many of the countries which have right-wing governments at the moment, such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, actually still receive a lot of support funds from the European Union. So it’s complex, it’s messy, and it is the sort of election outcome we can only analyse after it happens.
AA: This brings me to my last question. What are the implications, if any, for India?
ND: The European Union, even now, remains India’s largest trading/ economic partner. It will lose some significance once the UK leaves because many of our companies had headquarters in the UK and had treated the UK as their entry point into Europe. But we have very strong relations also with, say, Germany or France. We not only trade with these countries, but we have investments in all of them, we have defense relationships, and we buy arms from many of these countries. So the outcome of the election is important.
One of the more important issues – which has not been discussed so much in the Indian media – is that for Europeans, especially for young European citizens, the environment has become the biggest issue. So, the European Parliament, whatever its composition, will have to legislate on environmental issues. The latest report, which has come from the Intergovernmental Commission, shows how rapidly glaciers are melting and how much warming there is in Greenland and in the Arctic. This is quite scary, and it will be very useful if the world addresses the environment more seriously.
Yet, we do not want our policies to be bound by what the Europeans decide. We have tried to play a constructive role. We have the Solar Alliance, led by India and France, and we have committed to the Paris Accord, but we cannot accept something that will be legislated in the European interest because their problems are different from ours. So the environment is one big issue and we will have to be careful to see how that proceeds.
We also need to be aware that Europe remains very important for the rule of law and for the setting of standards for industry, banking and for other such economic frameworks. There again, we have to both participate in the rule-making globally, and not allow the Europeans to impose their standards. So with India now a member of the G20, as of other such frameworks, what happens in Europe is very important for us as each European government will also respond to the outcome of the elections to their Parliament.
AA: Thank you, Neelam.
Produced by Aashna Agarwal
Theme by Rohan Dalal
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