The new coalitions of European politics

, by Pascal Letendre-Hanns

The new coalitions of European politics
Entrance to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: Erich Westendarp (CC0)

Within EU politics there have always been particular ideological and national alliances. The most obvious one is the Franco-German partnership, cited for many years as the ‘engine’ of European politics due to the way this power couple drove key European decisions. Yet the emphasis on this particular alliance has tended to obscure other, equally important, factions such as the Visegrad 4, the liberal-sceptic alliance running from the UK to the Netherlands through to the Baltic states, or the Southern stretch of Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Some of these alliances will keep on running but others are shifting, and between Brexit and populist victories in certain countries, it is worth thinking about how and where these new bonds are being formed.

The Franco-Iberian axis

One notable pivot is France’s move to build stronger relations with Portugal and Spain. This does not seem to be intended to replace France’s links with Germany but the last German elections constrained Merkel’s ability to act as a strong partner for Macron. Having expended significant political capital in Berlin getting support for reforms to the euro and immigration in Europe, Macron looks to want to shore up these small victories by forming a strong, progressive alliance with Spain and Portugal. Strategically this makes sense as an over-reliance on Germany is one of the main threats to French ambitions for the future of Europe. In this sense, the move towards Spain and Portugal is more about having an insurance policy than ditching the Franco-German partnership. Ideologically too it makes sense as the current governments of the two Iberian states are both centre-left and pro-European, more naturally inclined to take a positive approach to Macron’s ideas.

The Italian-Visegrad coalition

Italy’s election of a strongly populist and Eurosceptic government has opened up a new dynamic in the country’s political friendships. On many European issues, notably migration, Italy now finds itself in close agreement with the states of the Visegrad 4 (Poland, Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia). They share a rejection of European immigration policy and a hostility towards non-white and Muslim migrants particularly. This will doubtless lead to the five countries increasingly lining up on the same side of the argument but it nonetheless is an unstable coalition. This is in no small part due to the fact that Italian politics itself remains quite unstable.

The M5S/Lega coalition government is as much an arduous union of circumstance as it is a meeting of minds. Importantly, the Italian electorate remains more pro-European than their government would suggest, with strong majorities still in favour of the euro and EU, in contrast to the Visegrad states where Euroscepticism is more entrenched among the actual voters. The addition of a big state, a founding member of the EU no less, will be seen as a valuable ally by the Visegrad 4 but they may be disappointed to find Italy’s room to manoeuvre is constrained by the complexity of its domestic politics.

Perfidious Austria

Finally, it is worth examining one more state that has deftly repositioned itself in the wake of its populist conversion. The Austrian government under Sebastian Kurz has carefully combined a pro-European stance on some issues with an almost nationalist attitude on others in order to present itself as a friend to all sides. When Kurz decided to come into government by forming a coalition with the far-right FPÖ, it seemed that the country was going to decisively turn against Europe in the same manner as other right-wing populist governments in the region.

Yet while it has shown a similar hostility towards refugees for example, Austria’s government has not chosen to simply attack the EU on the issue. Instead, it has pushed for greater European measures, notably on reinforcing security integration and providing greater resources for controlling the Schengen Area’s external border. This unusual combination of European integration and radical-right populism is, in some respects, the closest any government has come to what might be imagined as ‘European nationalism’ (even if in practice this idea remains a contradiction in terms).

The Parliament

Now these new configurations will naturally have an impact on the politics and voting patterns in the Council, where the governments’ ministers meet, but it will also have a more subtle impact on the European Parliament. Though the European Parliament presents itself as a pan-European institution, it is not entirely devoid of national qualities. Though MEPs organise themselves by ideological group rather than by nationality, they are still members of national political parties. This is particularly relevant for those MEPs who are members of the governing party in their home state. For these MEPs the political moves and alliances of national governments are entirely relevant to their behaviour in the European Parliament.

For example, if the Spanish, Portuguese and French governments all back a certain measure being brought before the European Parliament, then they will expect their MEPs to back the measure, with no regard for the position of the ideological grouping of which they are members. In this way, liberal and socialist MEPs voting together may not simply be reflecting their ideological preference but also the bonds between their national governments. Now of course these bonds will be related to the ideological positions shared by the national governments so the two ideas overlap and reinforce each other. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the point that between the intergovernmental nature of the Council and the supranational nature of the European Parliament there is no clean cut.

National alliances do impact on the European Parliament and these alliances are shifting in new and interesting ways. Come the final election results, whether the EPP wants to keep working with the S&D, whether ALDE wants to work with either, the strength of links between the ECR and ENF or EFDD, the voting decisions of LEFT and G/EFA, all these will in some part relate to the different bonds formed between national governments and the consequent positions they tell their MEPs to take.

This is a slightly adapted version of the text published on Pascal Letendre-Hanns’s Europe Votes 2019 blog. Read the original here: https://europevotes2019.wordpress.com/2018/07/30/the-new-coalitions-of-european-politics/

Your comments

  • On 6 August at 15:22, by Thomas Replying to: The new coalitions of European politics

    The Franco-Iberian axis - that’s interesting: are there any concrete actions where we can see this in action? In interesting avenue for debate/research.

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