Author: Teona Lavrelashvili, Doctoral Researcher, KU Leuven
The mood during the election night was quite gloomy in Brussels. Europeanists from all sides felt anxious about the possible populist surge – it did not happen, yet there are not many reasons to celebrate.
The good news is that the European Parliament (EP) elections somehow gained a new momentum. Since its first ever direct elections in 1979, the voter turnout has continuously shrunk while this year we see an increased participation by almost 9% as compared to the previous elections. This positive trend suggests that people are interested in Europe again and that there is an awakening of the European demos which no longer views the EP elections as ‘second order’ elections. Another piece of good news is that the populists and the nationalists are contained and the hysteria over a genuine cleavage among pro-EU and anti-EU populist forces is over.
The bad news is that the EU is left in uncertainty, not because of fragmentation – after all, the major parties can secure the majority – but because of the growing division among the Member States which hold conflicting visions on the future of Europe. In the new setting of the Council, it will become more delicate to reach agreements. The political ambiance is affected by the populists as well. Although they did not rise significantly, their share of seats increased from 20 to 25 percent. It is particularly worrisome that Italy, a founding Member State, is drifting away from EU principles and, in the words of Nathalie Tocci, has ‘chosen a path of national marginalization.’ Salvini’s far right League party came first in Italy. It promises to change the rules of the EU game together with France, the UK, Hungary and Poland. Marine Le Pen’s victory, although by a small margin, signals the weakening of Macron’s Renaissance vision of the EU while in the UK, Farage is again in the spotlight. In Belgium’s election, the night turned out to be a ‘Black Sunday’ – the nationalist, separatist and anti-immigrant party, the Vlaams Belang (Flemish interest), won triple elections (regional, federal and European). The rise of these types of parties illustrates that the times of political taboos are over and people do not shy away from proclaiming being on the extreme right.
These trends again confirm that the political architecture in Europe is in constant change. However, we should not make the mistake of reading the European trends in the votes of a single country. If green politics appeal to German and French citizens, the same is not valid for Central and Eastern Europe, for example. The voters’ preferences appear fragmented, shedding light on the regional divisions and disparities within the Union.
But what do the EP elections mean for Georgia?
First of all, it means that there is a new balance of power in the European Parliament. Forty years of a majority between the conservative center-right EPP (European People’s Party) and the PES (Party of European Socialists) is over and broader coalitions are expected to be created, including the Liberals and Greens. Now, the challenges for Georgia might be that agreements and decisions on country-specific issues and on foreign affairs (the Eastern Partnership) will be more complex and prolonged. Georgian diplomats will need to adjust their negotiation strategies to various political groups; however, their efforts will be in vain if national political parties do not decide to cooperate. The cross-party partnerships of leading Georgian parties will be needed to secure attention from Europarty (parties at EU level) officials, Members of the European Parliament and relevant political figures. It is high time that the Georgian political parties pool their resources to lobby the country’s strategic interests at the EU level in a coordinated manner.
Georgia’s level of ambition will also depend on who will take the EU’s top jobs. The key question here is – will the next Commission be political or technical? If the Commission President is chosen via the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidate) procedure (which means that the European Council proposes a candidate taking into account the election results of the European Parliament), the Commission will emerge as a more political institution, strong enough to support the new formats and partnerships with the neighborhood countries, including Georgia, by itself. If the Council decides to reject this procedure, the President will be nominated by the European Council. This will signal a return to inter-governmentalism, shifting the power balance towards the Member States which do not show much enthusiasm for the enlargement agenda. Yet, the European Commission recommends opening the accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in an annual report published a few days ago; however, as Martin Selamayr, the European Commission’s Secretary General, confirms in a private talk, the result of the upcoming Council Summit in June will be zero on this as Member States are simply reluctant. Naturally, in order to advance the neighborhood policies, it will be essential to have a strong High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy as well as a committed Commissioner for Enlargement and the Neighborhood Policy.
Looking ahead, it is clear that while the EU will need to fix its internal challenges, among others reconciling the populist moves and the green waves, Georgia should not find itself put aside. Its political elites should find a cross-party consensus and build a solid strategy involving civil society to advance the country’s interests by enhancing its channels of strategic communication at EU and at Member State level.