Europe Daily Bulletin No. 12859

23 December 2021
BEACONS / Beacons
The theatricals of our leaders

The year 2021 saw the return of the exorbitantly expensive ‘travelling circus’, taking the members of the European Parliament and their staff from Brussels to Strasbourg and back again. It is unlikely that the new variant Omicron, which has scared leaders enough to prompt them to bring in compulsory vaccinations or yet another lockdown, will be enough to buck the trend: the next plenary session will indeed take place in January in the capital of Alsace, at which the institution’s new head will be chosen to take over from the current incumbent, Social Democrat David Sassoli, whose term in office was set at two and a half years. The MEPs are not expected to go back on the decision of the European Council in July 2019 to allocate the top job to the EPP political families for the second half of the legislative period. However, the proposed candidate, Roberta Metsola of Malta, will not be a shoe-in, as she is notoriously opposed to abortion. This will cost her some votes from the Liberals and the Left (see EUROPE 12853/20). There will for once, therefore, be an element of suspense in the hemicycle and the EP’s reputation as a progressive institution may even take some damage.

The Council of the EU will come through the pandemic without too much drama and its operations will continue to run like clockwork. The six-monthly rotation of the chairmanship of the ministerial work, the tradition since the early days of Community Europe, means that it is possible to work out well in advance which member state will be shouldering this responsibility, with the emphasis on discretion, technicality and diplomacy rather than ‘big politics’. Since the co-decision system was set in place, the passing of the torch has not really lived up to the fanfare and frills since brought in by successive waves of great national pride. Unfortunate journalistic shorthand along the lines of “Presidency of Europe” simply add to the confusion of the general public that is already under-informed.

With the exception of a replacement for the Commissioner sent by Ireland, the European Commission will be able to boast considerable stability in its composition since it took up its duties. The same cannot be said of the European Council.

For one thing, its President is elected by his or her peers for a term of two and a half years, renewable once. The current term is due to expire in May of this year. To secure the qualified majority of member states needed for a second term, the President-in-office must get the most populous member states on side, however indifferent they may be to the values of the EU.

For another, the changes in the line-up of the national leaders constantly alters the assembly and its balance. Over the course of this year, no fewer than nine players have joined the cast, meaning that nearly a third of the group has been replaced. These changes are the result of national elections, but this is by no means the only cause.

The musical chairs trophy goes to Austria: the Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, having become embroiled in a scandal, was replaced in October by Alexander Schellenberg, who in turn gave up his post less than two months later in favour of Karl Nehammer, who was selected by the ÖVP party. In Estonia, the head of government, Juri Ratas, was also forced to step down in January over allegations of corruption involving his party, and the Parliament replaced him with a former MEP, Liberal Kaja Kallas. Eduard Heger became the President of the Slovakian government in April, after the previous incumbent, Igor Matovic, already accused of plagiarising his PhD thesis, lost the confidence of his partners when he decided to purchase Sputnik V vaccines. In all three of these cases, the electorate was not called upon to vote.

Over in Italy, it was precisely in order to avoid general elections that a government of national union was put into place, led by a figure from outside Parliament, Mario Draghi, who thus became a member of the European Council in February. It was again not the result of a ballot, but of an internal strategy of the Swedish Social Democratic party, that prompted Stefan Löfven to throw in the towel in favour of Magdalena Andersson, who was invested by the Riksdag on 29 November following a series of curious twists and turns.

But of course, it is Angela Merkel’s departure from office and her replacement as Chancellor by Olaf Scholz that will remain the most important event, and the one that most people will have heard of, also ushering in a change to the German political chess board that may have positive effects at EU level. In this case, the new Chancellor was fully legitimised by the elections of 26 September, from which the SPD emerged as winner, having clearly identified its candidate for the position.

The situations in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria were a touch more complicated, but extremely interesting. In the former, the general elections of October cast down the sulphurous leader Andrej Babiš, a millionaire suspected of conflicts of interest and mentioned in the Panama Papers over his offshore tax arrangements. A centrist coalition led by Petr Fiala won the majority of seats. Despite plans of President Zeman to put his old pal Babiš back in the driving seat, Fiala was finally sworn in on 17 December, the day after the year’s final meeting of the European Council.

As for Bulgaria, the opposition won the elections of 14 November. This was the third election to be held in a single year. It was characterised by the unambiguous victory by the new party ‘We Continue to Change”, led by a Harvard-educated 40-year-old, Kiril Petkov. He managed to secure a majority with three other political groups. On 13 December, the Parliament swore him in. Bulgaria had long been represented at the European Council by Boïko Borissov, who is on the right wing of the EPP group and suspected of being the organiser-in-chief of corruption in the country. The worsening political situation prompted the President of the Republic, Roumen Radev, to make his debut in the leaders’ club at beginning of the year. Now, once again, the country’s prime minister takes up his place at the Council in the person of Kiril Petkov. His priority ticket is the resolution of the conflict with North Macedonia, which will finally pave the way for accession negotiations to begin with it and Albania.

The way the public voted in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria may be interpreted as a clear rejection of corruption and enthusiastic support for the EU. Basically, things are changing in the East. This observation may be consolidated if, in April of next year, the Hungarian electors make Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz a minority party, now that the opposition is finally presenting a united front.

Out of all the institutions of the EU, the European Council is the most self-satisfied, the most visible and the most theatrical: the action moves from the wings to the stage and back again, depending on national inclinations, without any other procedure. The coming six months will be politically interesting: the French president, Emmanuel Macron, already one of the ‘big hitters’ of the European Council, will be indirectly taking the reins of the Council of the EU; if by any chance he is defeated in April, the discontinuity will have ripples in both institutions.

What will stay with us from the year 2021? The fact that most of its truly iconic personalities are from ‘civil society’. The three Belarusian opposition figures, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, winners of the Charlemagne prize (see EUROPE 12856/26), spring to mind as, propelled to the forefront by COP26, does Greta Thunberg, who has been nominated for the Prix Peace Nobel for the third time.

One might also think of Pope Francis and his hard-hitting address during his recent tour. In Cyprus on 3 December, he criticised the “wall of hate” put up against migrants; in Athens the next day, he spoke out against the responsibility of Europe in the migration crisis, of a Europe “torn apart by national self-interest” instead of being a driving force for solidarity. He made a moving and poignant speech in Lesbos on 6 December: “Let us not hastily turn away from the shocking pictures of their tiny bodies lying lifeless on the beaches. The Mediterranean, which for millennia has brought different peoples in distant lands together, is now becoming a grim cemetery without tombstones (…). Please brothers and sisters, let us stop this shipwreck of civilisation!

In Europe, there is no longer a single senior leadership figure standing up for migrants. At the very top, human compassion has disappeared and consciences have dried up. In this way, the Pope is filling a vacuum. A moral vacuum. For more on this subject, I would recommend reading the notepad of Bernard-Henri Lévy (surely far from a model parishioner) in the edition of the French weekly news magazine Le Point, dated 9 December (p. 150; available in French only).

To conclude, and returning to our institutional system, specifically to its most sombre and rigorous part, I refer to the warning signal sent out from The Hague on 5 November by the President of the Court of Justice of the EU, Koen Lenaerts : “the foundations of the EU based on the rule of law are under threat” and “the very survival of the European project in its current form is at stake” (see EUROPE, 12827/11).

It is all linked. Our legal tradition also includes assisting people in danger. In other words, neglecting to assist constitutes a criminal act.

The theatre of the dramas in our seas and the theatre of our umbrella institutions look increasingly like two separate worlds, two continents moving apart, caught in the gulf between them.

Renaud Denuit