The Grand Coalition in the European Parliament and the future of the European political consensus

1 December 2016

Linka Toneva, PhD

A new shake was added last week to the avalanche of crises which prod Europe in recent months. The long-term effects of this new quake are yet to be assessed. The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz declared that he does not intend to run for the following mandate in 2017 because he has decided to return to national politics and to compete for a seat in the Bundestag. Schulz admits to the electronic daily Politico that “from now on I will fight for the European project at the national level, but my values remain unchanged”. At present it seems that Schulz’s end-goal is to compete for the position of Bundeskanzler on behalf of the German Social-Democratic party during the 2017 elections. According to an opinion poll by ARD the public support for Schulz equals Merkel’s but if Germans have to select one of them for the kanzler position, then Merkel will win by a comfortable majority of 43% to 36% for Schulz.
Beyond the specific personal-biographical dimensions of this step and its effects on the political processes in the Federal Republic, Schulz’s decision puts a much larger political project into question – the project of the “Grand Coalition” in the EP. It is precisely this coalition that sustained the common political agenda in the EP in a situation of multiple crises in Europe since 2014.
How did it become possible that a personal decision of an European politician shakes the entire legislative activity of the European Parliament and the stability in Brussels?
The main source of seismic voltage is founded on the “Grand Coalition” format in the EU. In fact, its roots are historical and are related to the decision-making processes in the EU in general and particularly in the EP. Through the years within various EP mandate terms, this coalition between the European People’s Party and the Socialists has dominated the European Parliament. In recent decades however, and especially since the Treaty of Lisbon, the EP has seriously evolved from a consultative body to a key actor in the political decision-taking. In July 2014 the two dominating political groups entered into an agreement to share the presidency over the Parliament. Schulz’s decision had the effect of breaching this agreement for power sharing which required that the presidency position is transferred from the group of Socialists and Democrats, the second largest political group in the EP, into the hands of the European People’s Party group (largest group which currently exerts significant control over the European Commission and the European Council with its representatives Jen-Claude Junker and Donald Tusk).
Gianni Pittella of the Socialists and Democrats declared his candidacy for President of the EP and thus informally opened the door for free competition among all parties. The Liberals’ leader Guy Verhofstadt also demonstrated readiness to take part in the presidency position competition – a key decision since his party can provide the decisive votes in an alliance either with the Socialists and Democrats or with the EPP. Requests of the kind “the second half of the mandate of the legislature should be with a revised, more progressive agenda” were also soon to be voiced. Many observers in Brussels view Pittella’s messages as an intention for more mobilized opposition of the S&D towards Germany’s policy of financial austerity – a policy largely disapproved by most South-Eastern European Member States. Europe seems to be yet again divided deep in its core. Do Europeans want a right or left Europe? Northern v. Southern countries? Europe of budget austerity or political lavishness of ones at the cost of others? Europe of predictable but inert and unpopular policies or Europe of populism?
The issue of leadership in the EP and sustaining the conditions of the legislative process may find its short-term solution in the coming months. However the long-term issue of the political legitimacy which is at the heart of the coalition patterns and the decision-taking in the EP and the EC whose composition (should) be the reflection of the same political legitimacy, remains unsolved. In a historical moment of acute crises, the EU is obliged to take decisions – but the question remains: what is the effect of these decisions?
The debate on Europe usually deals with the question whether there is “too much” or “too little” Europe but pays little attention to the actual results achieved by EU institutions. These results are the outcome of party policies. Decision-making in the benefit of overall effectiveness of the EU and reflecting the maximum possible broad consensus require avoiding political polarization. This has been the approach throughout most of European integration history. Today, however, EU policies impact practically all areas of social-economic life. Thus, broad consensual politics will hardly ever lead to long-term sustainable and effective outcomes on the most salient problems of the European societies. The destabilization of the Grand Coalition is a symptom of this deeply rooted dilemma of the European political consensus.