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Europe’s future and India’s relations with the Union

India should boost ties with the Vysehrad group: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic

Theresa May’s resignation as Prime Minister of the UK on 24 May coincided with European Parliament elections. Holding elections for the European Parliament when one of its five biggest member states was seeking an exit was not a good augury. The tortuous debate in the House of Commons has shown that leaving the European Union is not easy. In her resignation speech, May stated that “the referendum was not just a call to leave the EU, but for profound change in our country". The British hesitation brings out the fact that the EU still has lot to offer it.

May made two turn-arounds in her Brexit position in the last days of Commons debate. She abandoned her “no deal" Brexit stance, and reached out to the opposition Labour party for support. Earlier, her negotiating strategy with the EU was based on a “hard Brexit" policy, under which the UK was prepared to walk out of the EU with or without a deal. This was part of a negotiating strategy to extract the best exit terms from the EU.

May’s resignation does not change the arithmetic in the House of Commons. Her Conservative party’s poor showing in the European Parliamentelections, where it finished fifth and the opposition Labour party ended third in terms of UK seats, means neither party can take any bold decision to break the logjam. The fact that Nigel Farage’s hard-Brexit party bagged the highest vote share would be a signal to EU leaders that concessions to a new government would not serve any purpose, as the Conservatives do not command popular support. Within their ranks, the balance is likely to move further towards a hard Brexit, while Labour members will exercise restraint in demanding a second referendum or fresh elections in the UK. This sets the stage for a second round of crisis as London nears its revised Brexit deadline in October 2019.

The EU voter turnout of 51% across its 28 member states was much higher than the 43% recorded in the last elections. President Donald Tusk of Poland, who holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, interpreted this as a sign of the health of the Union. The message was different in Euro-sceptic Britain, where Farage’s party secured the largest share of votes (31%).

The EU election results have weakened centrist political groups in the European Parliament: the European People’s Party (EPP) and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). These have alternately, or together as a coalition, led the European Parliament for more than four decades. Their combined share of seats fell from 54% to 43%. They fell short of the 376 seats required for securing a majority in the European Parliament. For that, they will need the support of Greens, a group that won 69 seats. Though this is less than 10% of the 751-member European Parliament, it gives them the capacity to swing the balance in favour of any coalition they join. Eurosceptic nationalists have also made advances, bagging 170 seats.

The political groups in Europe’s parliament are usually different from national-level political parties. Often, they are coalitions of ideologically-aligned national parties. This reflects the nature of the European Union, which operates like a confederation of independent states. A federal structure with a supra-national parliament remains unacceptable to the EU’s constituents. With the rise of euro-scepticism, the idea of “ever closer union" is likely to become an even more distant dream.

The European Parliamentelections are being seen as a reflection on the performance of national leaders. In France, President Macron’s Republic en Marche party came second after Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party. In Germany, the poor performance of Christian Democrats in the EU polls comes at a time of transition within the party. It has cast doubt on the suitability of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to succeed chancellor Angela Merkel. At the same time, it has weakened Merkel’s negotiating leverage to push for the candidacy of her party’s candidate Manfred Weber for the Commission’s presidency. Weber’s candidacy is being opposed by President Macron. Once the UK formally leaves the Union, Germany’s weight within the EU will increase further. If this is combined with the election of a German candidate to the presidency of the European Commission, German salience will rise further.

Historically, among the three European institutions–the European Commission, EU Council and European Parliament—the last was considered the weakest. It has slowly gathered strength. It enjoys the power of “co-decision making" along with the European Council. It approves the budget. The EU Council’s choice of president has to be approved and ratified by the European Parliament. It thus has considerable heft.

While it is too early to speculate about the policy impact of the European Parliament elections, the success of the Greens will increase pressure for environment conditionality on trade with partner countries. In case Brexit takes place, this could weaken the northern block of countries within the EU that favour free trade.

India needs to deepen her engagement bilaterally with EU member states. More needs to be done to engage the Vysehrad group of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The EU will continue to be important politically and as a trading bloc, but will perhaps remain preoccupied with its internal issues for some time.

D.P. Srivastava is a former diplomat who has served in Brussels and is now distinguished fellow, VIF

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