EU Elections Results and What Do They Mean for the EU Green and Global Agenda with Pat Cox [PODCAST]


How to interpret the recent EU election results? What does it all mean for the EU green and global agenda? Are we experiencing a swing to the right? And is the EU a global player? Leszek Jazdzewski (Fundacja Liberte!) talks with Pat Cox, former President of the European Parliament, currently the European Coordinator for the Scandinavian-Mediterranean TEN T (transport) Core Network Corridor, Leader of Needs Assessment and Implementation Mission on parliamentary reform for the European Parliament and the Verkhovna Rada, Kiev, Ukraine, the President of the Jean Monnet Foundation for Europe, and the Chairman of Appointment Advisory Committee at the European Investment Bank.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): From the EU perspective, how should we interpret the aggregate of 27 separate national elections that were recently held across Europe? What does it really mean for the European Union?

Pat Cox (PC): It is true that there are 27 separate elections. Over several decades, the European Parliament elections have often struggled to actually speak about Europe, because the 27 elections are actually mid-term voting on the popularity (or lack thereof) of incumbent governments. It is politics. Therefore, they focus on whatever the issues on the ground are – and the issues on the ground may not, at that point in time, be the strategic issues that will shape the European Union’s agenda.

Having said that, the election result this time is a significant one. The shift to the right – which has been widely reported and observed – must be put in a context. If you put all the people on the far right together, who have now been elected, they constitute something short of 25% of the elected MEPs. Although I do not wish to underplay that significance, if we flip the coin, it means they do not constitute 75% of the MEPs. We need to put that into perspective.

Moreover, the election has continued the gradual erosion of the broad center of European politics. The particularly severe hits were in the Renew Group because of the results (primarily, but not exclusively, in France) and in the Green Group (in general, across Europe, but specifically, in light of very challenged results in Germany). The squeezing of the center has been happening now in consecutive elections, and the growth of others through political party fragmentation has been evident.

The second big trend we may observe, if I go back to my time in the parliament (1989 to 2004), is the fact that the far-right parties were more on the margin, and occasionally led to ostracization and isolation. I recall, for example, in the early 1990s, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel of the OVP in Austria, who brought Jörg Heider’s Freedom Party into the government as a minority partner. At the time, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder convinced the European Council not to let Austria vote at the European Council for several months, which, of course, was eventually reversed since it was ultra vires.

Nonetheless, we have moved from that point where the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) is now the biggest party in Austria from the European election point of view, and so there has been a shift from the margin to the mainstream. This is the second dimension.

A third dimension is that the far-right parties will now, of course, nominate commissioners in a number of cases, participate in the European Council, and will have more supporting voices in the European Parliament. Therefore, they are going to spread across the whole European system. As a consequence, the sum of the parts will certainly exercise more insider influence and not just marginal outsider influence.

Finally, in terms of political dynamics, when you see a political party being successful (like the Greens five years ago – not just at the EU level, but also in many member states), you tend to get the mainstream center parties ‘borrowing the clothes’ of this party. This means that now they may borrow some of the key headlines and policy points of some of those on the far right in order to try to contain the growth of the far-right and retain their own positioning.

LJ: What will be the key issues the new European Parliament will need to address?

PC: What we are probably going to see is an issue-by-issue construction of the chemistry of consent and dissent. The idea that there will be one single grand bargain that fits all available scenarios and legislative and political propositions would probably be somewhat exotic.

Overall, there will be much more bargaining issue by issue over time. The pivotal MEP in the new European Parliament will be a member of the EPP, whereas the pivotal MEP for many years has been a member of ALDE or the Renew Europe – or any of the various names that we have given ourselves as liberal democrats over the years.

We were the pivotal ones in the past because the majorities in the pendulum swung through us – whether on the economy, environment, civil liberties, or other issues. I think the pivotal MEP now will be an EPP person, meaning that the majorities and the pendulum may swing a little bit more to the hard right – but not necessarily always fully – and then swing back again on other issues where other coalitions come together.

However, to get elected, to get her programmed through when she gives her policy speech in September, Ursula von der Leyen will need to mobilize a certain centralist majority, who in most circumstances will be reliable when you need reliable partners.

When it comes to the issue-by-issue approach, there may be a bit more swinging of the pendulum this or that way as majorities are constructed. One can certainly expect that the hard right, whose main issue that they exploit in terms of populist fears is raising fears around immigration, will be perhaps their most significant point of attack.

I was very pleased to see the European Court of Justice fine Hungary 200 million euros for failing to honor asylum policy in the EU – they also added that they will add one million euros a day for continued violations. Mr. Orban reacted with fury to this decision, but what it shows – and it is important for anyone who believes in liberal democracy – is the utter importance of the integrity, the separation of powers, and the objectivity of the rule of law.

Mr. Orban may be like many other populists with big majorities – if they have them, they may be able to impact the judicial independence at home. However, he cannot put the European Court of Justice in his pocket. And this is an important bulwark of our democracy.

When it comes to the Green Deal, at the end of the day, the one thing I know is that although the politics around climate change can change with electoral cycles, the physics of climate change never changes. The physics are simple and clear – the more globally we put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the more we add to the layer of insulation around the Earth. It is like putting insulation in your attic to keep your house warmer.

Clearly, you do not need to be a physicist to understand how it works. But the physics do not change. And if we have more global warming, we know we will have more intensity and more frequency of extreme weather events – whether that is extreme heat, cold, drought, floods, fires and so on. We know this because we are unhappily living with it. And that does not go away.

In the end, the common good requires us to sustain a strong Green-Deal-type philosophy and policy. And if there are ways to do with selling it better, I am happy to live with that. But if people choose to start abandoning it, we will pay a very high social, economic, environmental, and biodiversity price by failing to do what we know is the correct thing to do.

LJ: Is it possible to have a different philosophy and approach for addressing climate change in which the EU might focus more on not just emissions at home, but on global emissions? It seems that it will be extremely difficult to sell the Green Deal as it stands right now.

PC: Let us start with where we are today with the Green Deal. This has permitted the European Union, and logically so, to strive to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions – even as our underlying economic growth continued. This is a very considerable achievement, which we should not abandon. This approach gave the European Union enormous regional credibility as a multipolar player in the multipolar world of the COP negotiations.

If we, the authors of the leading edge, abandon our ownership of that, it diminishes our capacity in a global multipolar context to seek to exert pressures on others. Therefore, abandoning what we want to do, and abandoning or reversing or risking the achievements we already had, would diminish our hand in international negotiations.

Since we moved to the international plane, numerous complicated issues have been arising on the economic front, on contested multilateralism, on the no-limits friendship with Vladimir Putin, on the Trojan-horse entryism into Europe through friends like Viktor Orban, among others. All of these things are happening, and we need to be vigilant. But I do hope that there are some, what I would call, ‘global public goods’ (like climate change), where we find the wisdom, as well as the institutional, the political, and the diplomatic ability to make those global public goods transcend these emerging economic protectionist and new Cold-War dimensions. Because if everything gets sucked down by the weight of a new Cold War, into that kind of vortex, then we lose the capacity to have a mobilizing global influence that transcends Cold-War logic or economic protectionist logic – and we need global public goods.

The issue of pandemic control is the second ‘global public goods’ space, whereas the issue of the nuclear threat is the third one. As I go through these, the biodiversity challenge, all of these issues matter. Then, we have enormous sensitivities, as we can see, which are politically exploited, about levels of immigration and about dealing with asylum seekers and what to do with them – onshore inside the EU or offshore in third countries.

All this debate is happening, but it is very clear from UN predictions (with very wide margins, of course, of variation from low to high) that the impact of climate change on humanity itself is so enormous that in the coming decades, apart from wars, climate change will be the number one driver of migration.

Now, where migrants come from is places where you simply cannot live anymore – because our agriculture is dead, or the temperature levels are unbearable. Meanwhile, where those people go to is unknown, but some of them will try to come to places like Europe or the United States. The median estimate for mid-century is that climate refugees could be as high as 250 million. That is so wildly beyond any migratory flow we have experienced that I am not sure that we have given really any thought to this.

If you look at the Geneva Conventions done many decades ago, the term ‘climate refugee’ does not exist. This means that a climate refugee, in the eyes of international law, has no recognition whatsoever. Again, when you come to what I call ‘global public goods’, how do you deal globally with issues like that ought to be a relevant question.

My sense of desiring a level of transcendence for some public goods is very strong. If you look at the excellent Munich Security Conference report of this year if I reduce it to a phrase, it says that we are now living in a multipolar world, but with highly contested multilateralism. In other words, our post-war multilateral institutions are rejected by many – China and the BRICS are now increasingly challenging the fundaments to do with those things. There is now a contested and multivariate multilateralism, and the European Union will have to negotiate its way through this in a less certain multipolar world than what we knew in the past.

We have seen it happen, for example, with the World Trade Organization – the Western hypothesis was to let China in in 2001, and it will bring freedom and democracy to China and prosperity to the West because they can get cheaper goods and so on. It turned out, however, that it has not brought democracy or freedom in a Western sense to China, and Bill Clinton, who spoke about this in his last State of the Union address in the early 1990s, was followed less than two decades later in January 2017 by Donald Trump describing the results as American carnage. Now, between these two interpretations – one being a black vision of American carnage and displaced labor and de-industrialization, and the other one speaking of the hopes for democracy and freedom in China, we can see an enormous chasm.

Clearly, this big bet did not pay off in terms of the democratization part. Currently, China is a growing rival, which is perceived, of course, by the United States as its key rival. Meanwhile, in this multipolar space, Europe is in a very difficult zone because traditionally we have relied for our security guarantees on the United States.

Traditionally, in the past, we have built up organizations like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) with all of their presumed certainties to the mutual benefit of players – including in the United States and in Europe. And the more cleavage we get with the U.S. (if Donald Trumps comes back to the office of the president), the more Europe has a positioning issue in this global China-U.S. space.

I hope we can continue with a rational level of U.S. engagement in European security guarantees. However, these will not be cost free in the areas of Europe’s margin of maneuver or other issues that the United States want to put on the U.S.-China rivalry agenda. Therefore, the uncertainties within have to do with the politics we discussed earlier, but the uncertainties are outside as well. We are facing much more complexity, much more gray space, and much more need for intelligent bargaining inside the European Union and between the EU and the outside world. The skills to do that require the emergence in Europe of much more strategic thinking.

If the European Union is to mean something for us (separately and collectively) as being a weighty player in our interest, we must learn to play in this new world. To take the Global South as one big example, it is non-Western, but all of the global South is not anti-Western. We need to start getting clever about friendraising in places that are non-West. And this will throw back on us questions.

Will we continue to insist on all of those excellent values on labor market and environmental conditionality in doing deals?  Or will we privilege the trade interests? I do not know which path Europe is going to take on all of this. But the truth is that the external multipolar contested environment will be a harder space tomorrow than it was yesterday. In these harder spaces, you need harder thinking and clearer strategy. Let us wait and see if that is going to emerge. I hope it does – at a European Union level of capacity building and leadership.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of.

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