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This is Part 5 of an 8-part series of short articles by EWI's Head of Global Research, Murray Gunn. Murray is based in London, where he documents European hot-button issues in great detail. Murray also views the world and forms his conclusions from a social-mood perspective. It's an eye-witness series you don't want to miss.

Read Part 4 here.

A Decisive Moment for Europe: Part 5

The Populists’ Trojan horse

by Murray Gunn
Updated: May 10, 2019

Populist parties are expected to swell the European Parliament after the forthcoming elections. What will that mean for its workings?

Yes Minister was a popular, political satire British sitcom that ran during the 1980s. Its star character was Sir Humphrey Appleby, a member of the civil service, who acted as permanent secretary to his minister. He would famously obfuscate and manipulate any situation so as to make sure that nothing was done, baffling people with long-winded rhetoric. An example of Sir Humphrey speak is,

"Yes, yes, yes, I do see that there is a real dilemma here. In that, while it has been government policy to regard policy as a responsibility of Ministers and administration as a responsibility of Officials, the questions of administrative policy can cause confusion between the policy of administration and the administration of policy, especially when responsibility for the administration of the policy of administration conflicts, or overlaps with, responsibility for the policy of the administration of policy."

Say what?

Trying to understand how the European Union (E.U.) works can be just as confusing, but let's try and make it as brief and as clear as possible.

There are four key institutions in the E.U.:

The European Parliament

The European Parliament represents the citizens of the European Union, with members (MEPs) from each member state roughly approximate to their share of E.U. population.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union is made up of national ministers from each member state. For example, the finance minister from each member state will sit on the council as will other ministers with different portfolios (e.g., agriculture).

The European Council

Channeling Sir Humphrey, the E.U. wisdom was to have another "council" - the European Council. This is made up of the heads of state or government of member states. The European Council sets the policy agenda and appoints important officials such as the President of the E.U.

The European Commission

Legislation is proposed and written by the European Commission. Its officials, the Commissioners, are selected by the member states and, once appointed, they no longer represent their member states, but rather work together for the interests of the E.U.

So, the Commission proposes legislation which then has to be passed by both the European Parliament and by the Council of the European Union. In this way, the E.U. has a "bicameral" legislature, meaning that there are two 'chambers,' like the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington D.C. They approve most legislation together.

So far, so clear. I hope.

Within the European Parliament, MEPs divide themselves into political groups depending on the ideology of their own party from their member state. For example, a Green Party candidate from Germany who was elected to the European Parliament would align into the Greens-European Free Alliance group, which includes "green" ideological parties from the different member states. The current parliament has nine political groups. The two largest groups are the European People's Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). These are made up of MEPs representing mainstream, centrist political ideologies and account for more than 50% of MEPs.

The other seven groups in the parliament represent various ideologies, including far-right, anti-immigration nationalism, and this is where the wave of Eurosceptic populism sweeping Europe will be felt. The current Eurosceptic representation comes from the groups of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), made up of ideologies such as Marine Le Pen's French National Rally party (previously the National Front). There's also the Non-Inscrits group which includes ultra-far-right parties like Jobbik from Hungary. These groups currently make up around 23% of MEPs. Last month, Italian minister Matteo Salvini unveiled a new group, the European Alliance of People and Nations, that hopes to bring all the right-wing populists together. Current polling suggests that MEPs with a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration ideology are set to gain.

In sum: A larger, unified Eurosceptic group in the European Parliament has the potential to disrupt the workings and legislation of the E.U. At the very least, future legislation from the European Union will struggle to support the political integration and fiscal union that the project needs to survive. Whereas before, these populist parties wanted to leave the E.U. or the Euro, they are now seeking to disrupt it and change it from within--a bit like the Trojan horse that the Greeks used to enter Troy and win the war. Given the prominent role Greece has played in the recent turbulent history of the E.U., that couldn't be more appropriate.


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