EU summit “backroom” style deal for top jobs met with “revolt” from European Parliament; Italy escapes budget sanction
At the conclusion of the extended EU Council summit on Tuesday (2 July), Council President Donald Tusk announced the four nominees for the top positions in Brussels. Amidst controversy about the Spitzenkandidaten process of choosing the EU Commission President, the Council unexpectedly put forth German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, for Commission President. The nominees for EU Council President, President of the European Central Bank, and EU Chief of Foreign Affairs are interim Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borell, respectively.
The deal is seen as a joint compromise sought by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron after the leaders faced a deadlock on Monday’s summit on the Spitzenkandidats. However, each of the proposed candidates have their own trail of non-believers. Borell, as the nominee for High Representative, has been criticized for not recognizing Kosovo due to Spain’s own anit-separatist stance while Lagarde, trained as a lawyer not an economist, has with allegations of misconduct and negligence in her past as France’ finance minister. The least uncontroversial pick from the liberals, Charles Michel is seen as a compromise builder and a “real European” who notably built a “kamikaze” coalition government back home with Flemish nationalists.
EU leaders are required by the treaties to consider a balance of geographical representation as well as gender equality in assigning these roles. While gender parity was achieved by the nomination of two women, both of whom will be the first to assume their respective posts, all of the four nominees are Western European. However, many see the election of the European Parliament President as crucial to appeasing Eastern European countries. Hence, at the end of the EU summit, president of the Party of European Socialists, Bulgaria’s Sergei Stanishev was put forth as a possible half-term candidate for the position of President of European Parliament, expressing the Council’s “political intention” that a S&D party member from the eastern European countries be represented and share the term with an EPP member.
The five year term would be split between Stanishev and EPP’s Manfred Weber, who was forced to step aside as the Spitzenkandidate. In defiance of the Council’s wish, Parliament put forth their own list of four names on Tuesday evening for presidential candidates and Stanishev was notably absent.
On Wednesday (3 July), out of the four candidates, Italian S&D candidate David Sassoli, emerged as the elected President of the European Parliament. The Parliament reportedly revolted against the European Council’s package deal by ignoring the proposed candidacy of Sergei Stanishev. Outgoing president Andrei Tajani said the EU Parliament “voted independently” to elect Sassoli with 345 votes, beating the Green’s Ska Keller (119), ECR’s Jan Zahradil (160), and GUE/NGL’s Sira Rego (43). The new president’s priorities will be on reforming the Dublin regulation, environmental policy, and listening to the young people of Europe.
Eyes are now on whether the Parliament will approve the choice of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the Commission. Many MEPs see European People Party’s (EPP) lead candidate Manfred Weber as the more democratic choice than Ursula von der Leyen, who did not run for elections. She also surpassed another candidate Frans Timmermans from the Socialist grouping in Parliament. MEPs like the Green’s Ska Keller decry against what is seen as a “backroom stitch-up” that preserves Franco-German dominance at the highest levels of Brussels. Although Germany abstained from the apparently unanimous vote for Commission President, it is known that Merkel supported van der Leyen’s nomination for it would keep EPP as the leading coalition partner in Parliament.
Although her appointment is seen as a victory for Germany, von der Leyen who is from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also faces criticism from back home. The Christian Socialist Union (CSU) is unhappy that the Bavarian Weber was abandoned by Merkel for her nomination. Von der Leyen’s track record as defence minister and alleged misspening and mismanagement have also been brought up as reasons to cast doubt on her abilities and suitability for this role.
Germany’s Former Justice Minister and member of the S&D group, Katarina Barley, has also declared her intention to vote against von der Leyen citing the Council’s decision “disregards the will of the European people”, while former Parliament President Martin Schulz has called von der Leyen “our weakest minister”.
The fierce opposition against the Spitzenkandidaten process was lead by French President Emmanuel Macron who hailed the compromise as a positive consensus, saying “all countries, whether from Europe’s east, north or south voted for this deal”. Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, also approved the deal and viewed his country and the Visegrad Four nations as big winners as Poland and Hungary have bones to pick with Timmermans and Weber. While Weber did not get the Commission Presidency, he would continue as leader of the EPP in Parliament.
More changes are happening in Parliament too as jobs are being divided up. Mainstream parties in the new European Parliament, which began its inaugural term this week, has vowed to block the far-right Identity & Democracy (ID) group led by France’s Marine LePen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini from chairing committees on agriculture and legal affairs.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday (3 July), EU Commission ended its budget sanctions on Italy after Rome agreed to reduce public spending by €7.6 billion. Brussels was set to launch an excessive deficit procedure (EDP) after Rome was seen to be backsliding on its budget discipline pledge. The procedure, which would have amounted to €3.4 billion was no longer seen as necessary after a review done by the Italian government to improve its structural deficit. This move from the Commission is seen as an olive branch amidst the contention of EU top jobs and the recent attacks on Brussels from Salvini for shrinking responsibility on migration.
EU-Mercosur trade deal faces opposition
The historic deal that the EU struck with the Mercosur bloc of countries, namely Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay last week has drawn fierce opposition from climate activists and farmers’ associations in Europe. According to Pekka Pesonen, Secretary-General of the EU farmers and cooperatives’ association, “the impact of the Mercosur agreement would be devastating on the European farming family model”. Two decades of tough negotiations on the trade agreement had been repeatedly stalled due to European farmer sensitivities.
For Pesonen, the Mercosur trade deal also exposes Europe’s “double standards” when it comes to new technologies and innovation, particularly since Mercosur farmers can have a wider variety of different production options compared to EU producers. Plant breeding techniques and GMOs as some methods that can be used in those countries but are not allowed in Europe. Referring to environmental issues, he said that the introduction of new technologies is a necessity to tackle climate change and called for an honest discussion in Europe about them. The EU farmers’ boss further added that while EU policymakers keep on putting pressure on EU producers to be more sustainable and reduce chemicals, they simultaneously seal deals with countries such as the Mercosur bloc where big industrial agriculture driven by multinationals has largely prevailed.
EU and its global climate strategy
Macron has led the charge in criticizing the US for refusing to back the part of the G20 declaration that supports the Paris accord. He slammed the US for trying to water down the climate commitments and two senior EU negotiators said they had fought with the US over the climate chapter until 4 a.m. on Saturday, when they decided to pause talks as they saw no way out of the deadlock. Under a compromise struck at the last minute, heads of state from 19 of the 20 countries backed the Paris Agreement while the US secured a carve-out under an ‘agree to disagree’ framework — the same solution as in previous G20s after Trump was elected.
Macron’s criticism of the US backtracking on the Paris climate accord might arguably be justified, as satellite data shows that the vast expanse of sea ice around Antarctica has suffered a “precipitous” fall since 2014, and fell at a faster rate than seen in the Arctic. Researchers said it showed ice could disappear much more rapidly than previously thought. Although sea ice melting does not raise sea levels, it still means that the sun’s heat is instead absorbed by dark ocean waters, leading to a vicious circle of global heating.
Another summit which demonstrates that the US is still globally isolated on the issue of climate change was the third annual tripartite “ministerial on climate action” (MoCA) summit held in Brussels on Friday (28 June), where the EU’s Energy and Climate Action Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete stated that “[t]he EU, Canada and China continue to join forces to encourage global ambition in the implementation of climate action”.
While EU leaders had hoped to adopt a strategy to get to net zero emissions by 2050 at last month’s European Council, this was vetoed by Poland, Hungary, Estonia and the Czech Republic and has left EU delegates grumbling that the failure to adopt the strategy has tied the hands of EU negotiators who wanted to push China and Canada into upping their emissions reduction commitments at this summit.
Finland’s Antti Rinne has promised “to strive for” solutions on climate change during Finland’s EU presidency. “During Finland’s presidency, not only are we going to listen to young people’s concerns, we’re going to answer them,” he wrote in a blog post published on the Finnish Presidency’s website. Back home, Rinne’s government recently set itself the goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2035 in Finland. “During Finland’s presidency, we want to show that political will – the most important resource needed to halt climate change – is a renewable resource and not about to run out,” he added, showing his confidence that a solution is within reach.
In another European country, the Netherlands has debuted a climate agreement for the next decade and has set a goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 49% in 2030. The Dutch government wants every new car sold in 2030 to be emission-free and to also stimulate the secondhand market for electric cars, such that charging a vehicle becomes as easy as charging a phone.
In France itself, air pollution causes an extra 48,000 deaths a year, according to the national health service, making it the country’s second-biggest killer after smoking. As a result, a list of older, more polluting vehicles banned from the French capital during the daytime was expanded starting 1 July to include diesel cars, trucks and motorbikes dating back over 13 years. This move targets 30,000 vehicles in the greater Paris region and motorists who flout the ban face fines.
EU condemns attacks on migrants’ detention centre in Tripoli while silent on policy to return migrants to Libya
The EU has been criticised in a report by EU Observer for its stance to return refugees rescued at sea to Libya while condemning an attack on a Tripoli migrants detention centre that killed at least 40. An airstrike had hit a migrant detention centre in a suburb of Tripoli, killing at least 40 and wounding 80 people. The area where the centre was hit is also home to several military camps allied with the internationally-recognised Libyan government, currently locked in a struggle with a parallel government. Libya is the main point of departure for fleeing African migrants looking to reach Italy, but many get picked up by the EU-supported Libyan coast guard, looking to stop migration, and were sent back to Libya.
This was at the heart of the issue involving the humanitarian organisation Sea Watch that conducts civil search and rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean sea. Sea Watch is against the EU’s current strategy of funding Libyan coast guards to pick up people at sea and returning them to Libya where “they’re threatened with persecution or slavery, or rape or torture”. In defiance of the Italian government’s ban on Sea Watch to enter Italian waters, captain Carola Rackete docked in the southern island of Lampedusa with 40 migrants aboard the rescue ship. This was after it had spent two weeks at sea unable to secure a safe landing place for the migrants that were rescued from seas off Libya.
Captain Rackete was immediately arrested as the boat docked in Lampedusa last Saturday (29 June).
On Tuesday (2 July), an Italian judge ruled that Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete was free to go. The judge ruled that the recently enacted Italian security decree was “not applicable in the case of rescues”, and considered Rackete’s actions to be “in performance of a duty” to save lives at sea.
Following her arrest, supporters of the captain had raised over €1 million to cover the legal costs for Rackete, with German TV personalities Jan Böhmermann and Klaas Heufer-Umlauf having raised over €600,000 and another campaign in Italy having raised over €400,000 as well.
While the ruling frees Rackete from house arrest, she faces separate charges of aiding illegal immigration and is due to appear in court next Tuesday (9 July). The case has caused diplomatic tensions between Germany and Italy. On Sunday (30 June), German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticised Italy’s initial handling of the migrant rescue ship, stating that Italy was at the centre of the EU and “such a case must be dealt with in a different way”. Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was livid with the ruling, vowing to deport the German captain as soon as possible, unlikely given her scheduled court appearance. He accused the judge involved of making a politically-motivated decision, a denouncement criticised by The National Magistrates’ Association as making “contemptuous comments about a judicial decision, without any reference to its technical or legal content”.
Promoting social cohesion and bridging inequalities top areas of discussion in Young European’s Forum 2019
From 25 to 27 June, one hundred young Europeans attended the Young Europeans Forum in Berlin, organised by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, in conjunction with the Aladin project and UNESCO. The young participants shared their experiences and views on social engagement and cultural diversity. A key area of discussion was social cohesion and migration. The participants agreed that migration would not harm cohesion when it occurred in an “orderly, integrative and fair manner”. Pivotal to social cohesion was also trust in democratic institutions, and some participants point to the failure of institutions in enacting effective integration policies, allowing right-wing populism to bloom.
A related facet to social cohesion in the discussions was on economic injustice. Author and activist Lorenzo Masili stressed the need to review the dependence on current economic systems that are intrinsically unequal and to engage in trust-building in democratic structures. Speaking on a state-to-state level, policy fellow and founder of consultancy firm Unlearn Hanno Burmester spoke of the concentration of benefits of economic integration in Europe. In spite of EU funds to support infrastructure projects, Burmester argued that the long term costs of deepening inequality between rich and poor member states would continue without an approach of “political and social unification”.
On the EU’s ability to resonate with younger Europeans, POLITICO Europe sat down with the youngest MEPs to gather their thoughts on making the EU more relevant to the youth. Some issues highlighted was the need to be more transparent, democratic and ensure young Europeans’ were given a voice at the table, especially in the areas of climate change and sustainability. Some MEPs stressed the need to invest in young people, to communicate EU policies and benefits more effectively and to take their concerns seriously.
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