This is the second in a three-part series.
Picking up where I left off in my earlier post, I arrived in Kraków in a somewhat frazzled state, but eagerly joined some fellow Badgers (a.k.a. University of Wisconsin alumni) and began to wander. Kraków, unlike Warsaw, was not bombed during World War II, and its extraordinary medieval square is still intact. The Rynek Główny (Central Square) dates back to the thirteenth century and is flanked by St. Mary’s Basilica, the Town Hall Tower, and the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), which was once a major commercial hub in eastern Europe. The interior perimeter of the square is also home to some lovely cafés, including E. Wedel, which serves what has to be some of the best hot chocolate on the planet.
Coincidentally, elections for representatives in the EU Parliament (MEPs) took place the weekend that I arrived in Poland (between May 23 and 26, 2019). The polls were open across the country on Sunday, May 26, although I didn’t see much evidence of it since campaign advertising is banned for twenty-four hours before the polls even open (“election silence”). Poles selected fifty-two MEPs, including one spot “on reserve” in the event that the UK leaves the EU; the overall number of MEPs will drop from 751 to 705 if Boris Johnson has his way. There is a nice overview posted on the EU Parliament’s website of how elections for MEPs work in each of the twenty-eight EU member states and how Brexit would ultimately affect each country’s quantitative representation.
Along with Polish-language television stations, I had access at my hotel to five stations in Italian (go figure) and two in English. After ruling out “Ballando con le Stelle” (“Dancing with the Stars”) for election coverage, I selected Euronews as my best option for information. Euronews is partially owned by NBCUniversal, and is all Europe, all the time. The Euronews website is also saturated with information, and free daily email updates (recommended) are available. I also watched a bit of Porta a Porta (Door to Door) on RAI1, which is probably Italy’s most well-known evening talk show. (I find it to be quite entertaining even though I can’t understand all of it.)
EU election protocols indeed vary from country to country and are mostly governed by national electoral laws; some EU member states actually have compulsory voting (Belgium, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Cyprus, and Greece). It’s no secret, though, that MEP elections in general have not had stellar turnouts in the past; in 2014, the voter turnout across Europe was 42.61 percent. The 2019 elections had a final turnout of 50.62 percent—the highest in twenty years. In Poland, 45.68 percent went to the polls compared to only 23.83 percent in 2014. The European Parliament (EP) website has an excellent summary of the election results by country. The higher turnout this year might be attributed, at least in part, to the EU’s aggressive campaign to get out the vote, although concerns about climate change and immigration likely had much to do with it as well.
The EP is unusual in that MEPs belong to and sit in political groups; these can be single pan-European political parties or coalitions of Europarties and/or national parties and/or individual MEPs. EP political groups need at least twenty-five members, representing at least seven EU countries, to be officially recognized. During the 2014–2019 term, there were eight recognized political groups, plus a small cadre of Non-Inscrits (NIs), MEPs who did not sit with a recognized EP group. In case you’re interested (I was), MEPs earn a pre-tax monthly salary of €8,757.70 (about $9,600).
The EP political groups are bound by ideology, including left, right, and center, as well as topical emphasis, such as the environment, immigration, and Euroskepticism. There is a helpful chart of the various policy positions linked to the different EP groups posted on the Europe Elects website. Some of the groups have the same names as the dominant political party within its membership. For example, the European People’s Party (EPP) parliamentary group is also the name of the European political party with which its members identity. Under EU law, only registered European political parties are eligible for funding and are able to campaign during the MEP elections.
Throughout the television coverage of the elections, it was clear that the centrist EU parties were taking a beating—these being the center-right EPP and the center-left S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats). The EPP is a pro-Europe party, while the S&D touts itself as a progressive party advancing social justice principles. Gaining ground in this round of elections were the far right (Identity and Democracy, formerly ENF); liberals (Renew Europe, formerly ALDE); and the environmentally conscious (Greens/EFA). Identity and Democracy is a new right-wing alliance that includes supporters of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. (Note that Salvini has been sidelined somewhat at the national level as an unlikely and surprising coalition in Italy formed a new government last week.)
Most commentators expected the EU to follow the Spitzenkandidat process post-election to determine the EU Commission’s next president. Spitzenkandidat means “lead candidate” in German and was used in 2014 to select Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg) as commission president. Per the Spitzenkandidat protocol, before the MEP elections, European parties select a candidate they would nominate for the commission presidency if they were able to carve out a majority in parliament. Prior to the May elections, Manfred Weber a German member of the EPP, was widely regarded as the frontrunner for the EU Commission presidency.
The Spitzenkandidat process, however, was not used this time around. After what the New York Times characterized as “grueling and bitter negotiations” in early July, the newly seated MEPs (Ninth Legislature) confirmed EPP member Ursula von der Leyen as the next president of the commission (by a vote of 383 to 327). Von der Leyen, a close ally of Angela Merkel, will be the first woman to hold the post and the first German serving in the role in fifty years. She will also be dogged by a parliamentary investigation still ongoing in Germany about mismanagement in the defense ministry during her tenure there. Von der Leyen will take over from Jean-Claude Juncker at the end of October on the same day that the UK is due to break from the EU, with or without a Brexit deal. For a discussion of the demise of the Spitzenkandidat process, see “Who Killed the Spitzenkandidat?” (July 8, 2019) on POLITICO.
The newly formed EP has seven political groups, along with fifty-seven Non-Inscrits. The groups are the EPP (182 reps); S&D (154 reps); Renew Europe (108 reps); Greens/EFA (74 reps); Identity and Democracy (73 reps); ECR (62 reps); and GUE/NGL (41 reps). The parliament’s new president is David Maria Sassoli, an Italian member of the S&D group. If the UK exits the EU on October 31, the EP will be reduced by the UK’s allotted seventy-three seats. Forty-six of those seats will be reserved for future enlargement, and twenty-seven will be reallocated (primarily benefitting France and Spain) for a total of 705. For pre-Brexit and post-Brexit scenarios, see “The European Parliament after Brexit: What Would It Look Like?”
The EP returns to work this month; the plenary session will be held the week of September 16 in Strasbourg. With the environmentally friendly Greens having a much larger presence (52 reps in the last legislature, 74 currently), and the ever-changing Brexit scenarios, the next several months in the EP (and other EU institutions) could be lively to say the least. To follow EP developments in English, check out Euronews, EUobserver, the European Law blog, and EP News.
In the final part of this series, I will focus on my time spent in Poland, including my experience at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.