Andrew Duff -  On Governing Europe

The first time it happened, on 22 November 1989, the German Chancellor outshone the French President. It was under a fortnight since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Helmut Kohl sounded confident and decisive, clear in his call for enlargement of the European Community and commitment to the goal of political union. François Mitterrand, by contrast, who spoke first, sounded as if he could not quite believe what was happening. The MEPs in the packed chamber in Strasbourg applauded Mitterrand politely but Kohl warmly.

This Wednesday, 7 October, the Franco-German duet is to be repeated at Strasbourg, although in rather different circumstances. There is nothing much to celebrate – and a great deal to worry about.

The European Parliament in trouble

In its reception, this European Parliament can be expected to be a good deal less polite than its predecessor. Although the present House is run by the two big groups to which the respective parties of the Chancellor and the President belong, the bipartisan coalition is not an easy one, nor obviously effective. Their pact is built on shifting sands. The European Peoples Party is a good deal less Christian Democrat than it was in Kohl’s day; and the so-called ‘Progressives’ are likewise less socialist.

At the same time, German power has continued to rise since reunification while France’s stock has fallen. The virtual retirement of the British from top flight EU politics accentuates Germany’s profile. Indeed Parliament as a whole seems suffocated by an extension onto the European scene of the Grand Coalition between the CDU-CSU and SPD that rules in Berlin. While all the multi-party groups in Parliament are struggling hard to achieve coherence and direction, the clout of the national delegations within and across those groups continues to dominate. And German MEPs are the best organised national delegation: recall, for example, how the power of the German automotive vote swept all before it from left to right when Parliament came to vote on vehicle emissions.

The present Parliament seems very risk averse. Although the volume of routine legislation has declined, MEPs have not filled the space with a sense of strategic direction about the future of Europe. Enlargement is off their agenda. Parliament is unwilling to use its important rights of legislative and political initiative. The Spitzenkandidaten experiment at the elections in 2014, of which Parliament was rightly proud, risks going into reverse in 2019 because the Constitutional Affairs Committee has abandoned electoral reform. On the matter of economic governance, meanwhile, Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee trails behind the inadequate European Council.

Parliament’s President Martin Schulz has taken it on himself to block debate about treaty change. Schulz has enjoyed aggrandisement on the back of his own performance as the social democrat Spitzenkandidat. He is now a two-term President and is reportedly looking for a third term. Such an unprecedented prolongation, however, would blunt pluralism, weaken the independence of MEPs, and accentuate Parliament’s cozy conservatism at a time when the EU badly needs to recapture an edgy zeal for reform.

Rhetoric or substance?

So what may we expect from François Hollande and Angela Merkel when they address Parliament next week? Will they agree or disagree with each other? And does Hollande agree with his increasingly outspokenly federalist economics minister Emmanuel Macron? Or will Merkel disavow Wolfgang Schauble, who disagrees with Macron? Will either leader push Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to accelerate his plans to deepen fiscal integration and install federal government? Do they dare back the Commission’s ambitious proposals on asylum and immigration? And will Germany at last match the French lead in foreign, security and defence policy?

Whatever happens in Strasbourg, Europe does not need to hear the big duo talking rhetorically about things they can do nothing much about. Those things are plentiful – and they include David Cameron’s silly, ill-judged referendum on leaving the Union.

One trusts the two leaders will have something of substance to say about Europe’s moral and constitutional dilemma. They should not travel to Strasbourg merely to flatter Schulz. An ambiguous Merkel and a hesitant Hollande addressing this tinkering Parliament will not a good Wednesday make. Those who wish Europe well will be hoping that Merkel can emulate Kohl’s leadership and that Hollande can cut a more commanding figure than the wily Mitterrand.

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