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Ernesto Gallo

Tutor of business, law and social sciences at Kaplan International College, Affiliated Faculty at University College London

Giovanni Biava

Independent Analysts, Energy consultant, eXelen srl

Despite much fanfare and discussions on the mortal contest between ‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘sovereignists,’ the recent EU elections have been rather undecided, uninteresting, and divisive over national issues. To be sure, the turnout has improved, but 50.95% remains absurdly low. In Italy, it has been the lowest ever (54.5%), and in Britain, in spite of the endless Brexit saga, it was a modest 36.9%, lower than, say, in 2004.

Once again, the elections’ focus has been mainly national. EU elections were and remain second-rank polls, a kind of test on national governments in the mid-term. In fact, post-elections Europe there is not much concerned about European affairs as it is on the elections’ national effects. For example, in the United Kingdom, Theresa May has finally resigned, and the big debate is on her successor — Michael Gove, Dominic Raab or, more likely, Boris Johnson. In Italy, the League has won large (34.3% of the votes) and many wonder if and when its leader, Matteo Salvini, will call for a new national vote. What will happen then to the downsized Five Star Movement, the League’s partner in government, whose share of votes has dropped from 32.5% (Italian elections, 2018) to 17.1%? What will happen in France to embattled Emmanuel Macron, whose En Marche! has been narrowly defeated by Le Pen’s National Rally — 22.4% vs. 23.3%?

In summary, and not for the first time, Europe is lacking a clear geometry and — even worse — a compass. These uncertainties do not get unnoticed in the rest of the world. China and its companies keep investing, striking deals, and negotiate with states bilaterally — a fact which might divide the EU but brings economic benefits to cash-strapped countries such as Italy, which joined the Belt and Road Initiative last March, or Portugal, which will be the first Eurozone state to sell bonds in China. Hopefully, this is not a way to protect oneself from Frankfurt’s and Brussels’ austerity.

Despite much fanfare and discussions on the mortal contest between ‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘sovereignists,’ the recent EU elections have been rather undecided, uninteresting, and divisive over national issues. To be sure, the turnout has improved, but 50.95% remains absurdly low. In Italy, it has been the lowest ever (54.5%), and in Britain, in spite of the endless Brexit saga, it was a modest 36.9%, lower than, say, in 2004.

Once again, the elections’ focus has been mainly national. EU elections were and remain second-rank polls, a kind of test on national governments in the mid-term. In fact, post-elections Europe there is not much concerned about European affairs as it is on the elections’ national effects. For example, in the United Kingdom, Theresa May has finally resigned, and the big debate is on her successor — Michael Gove, Dominic Raab or, more likely, Boris Johnson. In Italy, the League has won large (34.3% of the votes) and many wonder if and when its leader, Matteo Salvini, will call for a new national vote. What will happen then to the downsized Five Star Movement, the League’s partner in government, whose share of votes has dropped from 32.5% (Italian elections, 2018) to 17.1%? What will happen in France to embattled Emmanuel Macron, whose En Marche! has been narrowly defeated by Le Pen’s National Rally — 22.4% vs. 23.3%?

Before this latest round of polls, there was a quite intense debate on the future of Europe, yet it hardly had political connotations. Nationalists want less of Europe and a return to nation-states that would have very limited instruments to deal with global challenges. Mainstream parties, however, have not proposed significant political solutions, apart from some cosmetics and occasional declarations. What happened to Macron’s calls for a Eurozone budget? What about Verhofstadt’s ardent federalist statements? There is no shortage of grandiose statements, but no European leader has recently spelled out any plan on how to achieve better and stronger integration. In most cases, pro-European declarations have been used simply as rhetorical tools to attract voters, especially those who remain committed to traditional ideas of European integration.

As to the candidates to the top EU chairs, there is an evident lack of high-profile leaders with recognized statesmanship and pan-European popularity. Manfred Weber, the EPP Spitzenkandidat to the Commission, does not seem to have the experience or support to steer Europe towards bolder objectives: the EPP lost 37 seats and its German component, the CDU/CSU, has become widely unpopular both in the EU (after the Greek crisis) and in Germany. Similarly, Frans Timmermans, the PES candidate, and former Dutch premier have to come to terms with his party’s loss of 32 seats and has hardly expressed any views for federal European integration. The fact that a non-candidate, the Frenchman Michel Barnier, is rumored by some to be Macron’s favorite Commission President, tells a lot about the way European politics is instrumental to national goals. In truth, no European leader is well-known or popular across the continent, while — sadly — the huge game is that of the appointment (not an election) of the next President of the European Central Bank. Who will succeed Mario Draghi in November? A pro-austerity Bundesbank candidate? There is fear that Draghi’s heir might be the ‘hawkish’ German central banker, Jens Weidmann. His appointment will also depend on the choice of the Commission President; the Frankfurt role has never been filled by a German. Although in recent times he seems to have softened his tones, Weidmann was a strong opponent of Draghi’s Quantitative Easing and a promoter of deflationary monetarist policies. Whatever the choice, other potential favorites come from Northern European countries with hard-line reputations, while it is not entirely clear what would happen in case a Frenchman was appointed (but how likely is it? After all, France already had one President, Jean-Claude Trichet). All in all, there are fears that the EU’s core might shift north, both geographically and in terms of economic policies, as the supporters of a Dutch-led ‘New Hanseatic League’ seem to claim. However, how credible is a ‘league’ of ‘virtuous’ Northern states of which two members — Denmark and Sweden — are not even in the Euro?

Elena Alekseenkova:
Connectivity Italian Style

In summary, and not for the first time, Europe is lacking a clear geometry and — even worse — a compass. These uncertainties do not get unnoticed in the rest of the world. China and its companies keep investing, striking deals, and negotiate with states bilaterally — a fact which might divide the EU but brings economic benefits to cash-strapped countries such as Italy, which joined the Belt and Road Initiative last March, or Portugal, which will be the first Eurozone state to sell bonds in China. Hopefully, this is not a way to protect oneself from Frankfurt’s and Brussels’ austerity.

The US, for its part, seems to have lost interest in European affairs and Trump’s quick temper is certainly at odds with Brussels’ intricacies. The point is more profound than the recurrent tensions between the White House and Brussels or Trump’s recent ‘digital’ abrasiveness in his London visit. The US is looking elsewhere — China, Japan, Korea, Australia, India, and the like. The ‘present’ is in the Pacific, and Europe cannot choose its geography. What European citizens can do, however, is to reflect and act. This begins by participating more — a 50.95% turnout cannot be taken seriously — and call for a stronger, more united Europe. Nobody will come to its rescue, only a ‘bottom-up’ approach, so to speak, will help.

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