Does Europe have a hero waiting in the wings?

By Mark Leonard
May 27, 2014

Italy's PM Renzi arrives at an informal summit of European Union leaders in Brussels

What Europe needs now is a hero.

Before the European elections, many predicted a political earthquake. Now it has struck, leaving the mainstream parties of Europe battered, bloodied and in disarray.

As it so often is, the most eloquent signal was the number of European citizens who chose to sit out the elections altogether (almost 60 percent). And those who did vote could not have been clearer in their rejection of the political mainstream — both right and left.

As predicted in the polls, Euro-phobic parties dominated the poll in two of Europe’s most populous and influential countries, France and the UK, and they exerted a strong influence in many others. In France, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen topped the poll with a record 25 percent of the vote.  And in the UK, the insurgent Nigel Farage was the first political leader in 100 years who did not come from the Labour or Conservative parties to top a national poll.

As Matt Browne wrote in his recent piece, from Italy to Denmark, and from Austria to Greece or Spain, centrist parties are being challenged from the extremes. And even in countries like Spain, which seemed immune to the new populist movement, the two main parties failed to get even half of the votes.

The net result of the European elections is that the largest grouping in the European Parliament will neither be the centre-right EPP (which is down to 212 seats from its previous 274) or the Centre-Left PES (which are down to 185 from their previous 196) – but rather a ragbag of anti-establishment Members of the European Parliament (MEPS).

The latest figures suggest that they could number 228. They may struggle to find consensus among themselves, but with 30 percent of the seats, they will change the way the Parliament works, forcing mainstream parties to work more closely together.

For example, the anti-establishment parties might unite to try to block the election of a federalist president of the European Commission, and use their voting power to block integrationist moves for the Eurozone, take a tougher stance on the freedom of movement, and to rebel against free trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

But the biggest impact will probably be at home where mainstream parties will be torn between the two hopeless strategies of aping the populists or clubbing together to protect the status-quo. To see evidence of the first strategy, look no further than the former French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s article in Le Point on the eve of the poll asking for the suspension of the Schengen agreement for border-free travel. The same dynamic has taken hold in the UK where Labour and Conservative politicians are calling on their leaders to adopt tougher stances on migration.

To see evidence of the mainstream parties clubbing together to support the status-quo, we should look at what Europe’s leaders do when they meet for dinner on Tuesday night to discuss the selection of the next European Commission president.

Before the poll started, the parties agreed that the main-stream grouping which got the most votes would see its leading candidate become president of the European Commission. Given that the centre-right EPP grouping looks like it will be the largest party group with 212 out 751 seats, that would mean that Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier would become the next president of the European Commission. He is already seen as tarnished by his role in the euro crisis.

One troubling trend is that few of Europe’s leaders even seem interested in finding someone who can cut through the populist discourse and re-launch Europe.  Even amongst those who want to think big, there is a failure to look for political heavyweights.

But they need to.

One political figure that has emerged through the European elections with his reputation enhanced rather than diminished. His name is Mateo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister.  With over 40 percent of the vote, he got a record result for the centre-left in an Italian election, crushing Beppe Grillo’s anti-mainstream party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

The magic of this young charismatic leader – nicknamed the bulldozer – is that he has managed to offer change from within the system rather than becoming a force for conservatism. He is a new-comer to the European stage and is not being considered by any one for one of the top slots in the EU institutions.  But Europe’s leaders could do worse than ask him to become president of a European Commission which is in desperate need of an injection of insurgency and energy.

The alternative to Renzi, of appointing Juncker or another exhausted creature of Europe’s past will be to allow the Euro-skeptic surge to metastasize and eventually overwhelm the entire EU system.

PHOTO: Italy’s PM Renzi arrives at an informal summit of European Union leaders in Brussels. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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