For over 50 years, the European project has been driven by France and Germany, but this motor seems to be running out of fuel now.
Traditionally the two biggest blocs in European Parliament, the Conservatives and the Social Democrats, have been setting the agenda, not just for the Parliament, but also the European Union. And, Germany and France, the two biggest members of the EU have not only dominated the EU, but also pretty much driven the group towards closer integration and pushed key measures to give the EU the look, feel and substance which it has today.
The results of the Parliamentary elections, held between May 23 and 26, have been a setback to both the Conservatives and the Social Democrats, not just in Germany and France, but indeed the entire EU. The socialists have been the biggest losers, with almost 20 pc fewer seats in the new Parliament as compared to the outgoing one. The Conservatives have done hardly any better, with just over 19 pc fewer seats.
The biggest gainer, in line with the trends in Europe over the last five years, has been the extreme right, which has increased its tally by over three times and is now the third largest group in the Parliament, just behind the socialists. The extreme right has done very well in Central European nations like Hungary and Poland. But strategically, its biggest gains have come in France, where it has topped the list, with close to 24 pc votes, closely trailed by the liberal coalition in which President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche (LREM) is the biggest partner. The socialists have nearly been decimated in France bringing the bottom of the list of the parties that have made it to the Parliament and six percent votes, the lowest in the Parliament’s history. The conservatives are an also-ran with just over eight percent votes, their worst performance ever also.
In rather sharp contrast, in Germany, the conservatives have topped the charts with nearly 30 pc votes and the social democrats have not fared too badly either, emerging third in the list with close to 16 pc votes. The extreme right did worse than expected, with barely 11 pc votes. The surprise performers, not in Germany and France, but across the EU have been the Greens, which have emerged as key power broker. In Germany, they are the second largest group and hence are certain to influence the policies not just of the EU, but also the national governments in various countries.
With the greens standing at the other end of the spectrum from the extreme right, the governments in various EU nations, especially France, will have to walk the tightrope so as not to upset either of the two powerful groups. Macron’s own popularity remains extremely low and he has not yet emerged from the Yellow Vest protests that brought him and his government to their knees just weeks earlier.
The strong performance by the ruling coalition in Germany and the weakening of the extreme right wing is bound to boost the confidence of Merkel and her party, while Macron will have to find a way to fend off the challenge posed by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right wing Front Nationale, especially in view of the municipal elections that would be held in France next year. Macron seems to be trapped between the two extreme ends of the political scenario and can not be seen to take steps that favour or penalise any.
The big difference in the outcome of the elections in Germany and France as well as the prevailing situation is likely to apply brakes to the Franco-German motor even more. Already, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visibly cooler towards French President Macron and the chemistry that has been there traditionally between leaders of these two nations is clearly missing between Merkel and Macron. The two have fairly different visions on the future course for the EU, notably how to deal with challenges such as Brexit, Russia as well as Donald Trump. Last year, France and Germany presented contrasting proposals for the creation of a joint military command for the EU.
Already, there are reports of serious differences between Merkel and Macron over who should lead the new European Commission that would take charge next year. Merkel has backed her fellow German MEP, Manfred Weber, who has already been nominated by the Conservative group in the European Parliament. By tradition, the Parliament appoints the candidate of the group that wins the maximum number of seats in the house. Here, Merkel’s group enjoys a comfortable lead over Macron’s liberal group. Yet, Macron has attacked Weber openly saying that the new team in the Commission must enjoy the confidence of the people, referring to the fact that Weber has never held any government position.
This will complicate the composition of the next commission as this process has traditionally been done with France and Germany acting in close tandem and pushing a common candidate, even if the two countries began by backing different persons for the top jobs. However, in the past, the cordial relations between the two leaders helped the two countries find common ground without any great difficulty. That seems a distant prospect now, looking at the cold relationship between Merkel and Macron. The EU could end up paying a heavy price for this friction in the motor that has always driven the European project.