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Tag: EU Presidency

Finland ahead of the Council presidency

  • April 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

Finland ahead of the Council presidency

 

Increased political fragmentation at the core of recent election results

 

Credit: Otto Ilveskero

 

Disappointment. Injustice. The bittersweet taste of joy that lingers in your tears as the victory you thought was yours gets snatched from your hands at the last possible moment. The proud nation of Finland was violently shaken on Sunday (14 April) when the country’s ice hockey team lost the IIHF Women’s World Championships final to the United States after having had their overtime goal disallowed by the referees. So momentous was the occasion, that the national broadcasting service YLE decided to set up a split screen during its election coverage to also show the last moments of the match. In Finland, we take hockey seriously.

 

In many ways, the hollowness left behind by the events on ice reflected the results of the Finnish parliamentary elections, leaving most parties in a situation where they can be satisfied with their overall performance but not really happy. The Social Democrats (SDP), for example, ended the night as the largest party in the Finnish parliament for the first time since 1999, but became the first party ever to win the elections with under 20% of the vote. The centre-right National Coalition party can be content with their one seat gain considering that their governing partner, the Centre Party, lost 18 seats and obtained the party’s worst election result since 1917 (and that the Blue Reform, a 2017 offshoot from the Finns Party, with 5 ministerial positions and 17 seats managed to lose everything in their first contested elections). Yet, the National Coalition party was also left in the third place just one seat and 0.5% behind the Finns Party, which in turn would have needed only 6,000 votes more to overtake the SDP and win the elections.

 

Fragmented, young, and equal – the new Eduskunta

 

The glass is both half full and half empty – except for the Greens and the aforementioned Centre Party. The former have now doubled their support since 2011 and become only the third European Green party to obtain over 10% of the vote share in national parliamentary elections. As a whole, the left of the party spectrum, consisting of the SDP, Greens and Left Alliance, secured 76 seats (up by 15 from 2015) to the 200-member Eduskunta in Helsinki.

 

Although on paper the Finns Party improved their result by only one seat compared to 2015 (from 38 to 39), in practice their gains were a serious improvement for the increasingly nativist populist party, which was left with 18 MPs in parliament after a dramatic split in 2017. From early on, it was clear that voters were not going to follow the 20 representatives who split off from the Finns to form the Blue Reform as a protest to the election of Jussi Halla-aho as the new party leader. In fact, Halla-aho was the 2019 election’s biggest individual winner with over 30,000 personal votes under the Finnish open-list electoral system.

 

Nonetheless, the most impressive development of the evening was provided by women and young candidates. Almost half (47.0%) of all the candidates elected on Sunday are women – a record number in Finnish parliamentary elections and second only to Sweden within the EU member states. In addition, almost one fifth (19%) of the elected candidates are under 35 years old, while two thirds (62.5%) of the representatives are aged 50 or under. Only 4% of representatives in the next parliament will be over the age of 65. Ultimately, the most important story that emerged on 14 April is how youthful and equal the next Finnish Eduskunta will be. We should also be very happy with the turnout at 72% – the highest in Finnish parliamentary elections since 1991.

 

The overarching message from the elections was one of increased fragmentation, which is bound to make the upcoming coalition negotiations increasingly unstable. The elections were the closest in 60 years with the three largest parties separated by just 0.7% of the votes and both the right and left flanks making gains at the centre’s expense. The people have spoken, now we just have to figure out what they said.

 

A pro-European coalition expected ahead of the Finnish Council presidency

 

From the European perspective, these elections carry particular importance as Finland prepares to assume the Council’s next six-month presidency on 1 July. If the SDP and National Coalition can form the basis of a new government with perhaps the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SFP), then Finland would have a fragile (108 out of 200 -majority) but pro-European government in place for the crucial presidency overseeing the elections for the new European Council and Commission presidents as well as the ongoing negotiations of the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). The next government will of course also be responsible for the nomination of the Finnish commissioner to the EU’s agenda-setting institution.

 

The aforementioned parties have indicated willingness in their election manifestos to support deeper EU integration in the form of swiftly completing the European banking union for stronger supervision of EU banks, for example. The Greens would also like to see the elevation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) into a European monetary fund (EMF) to provide better financial assistance to member states in need, as well as to increase the EU’s own funding through increased member state contributions and climate-friendly taxes. On climate action, the parties share a common vision of increased and more ambitious EU cooperation. The National Coalition, for instance, specifically mentions lifting the EU’s 2030 emission reduction target to 55% from the current 40% to keep the bloc on course to climate neutrality by 2050.

 

Furthermore, the likely prime minister party SDP has become more openly pro-EU since their previous manifesto four years ago. From a previously more ambiguous position, the party’s current election programme wants to place Finland ‘in the frontline of deepening European cooperation’ and raise the Pillar of Social Rights as an equal to the economic principles of the EU. The centre-left group is also promising to support the creation of common EU migration policy and enforcement of a migrant quota system, as well as to strengthen the EU’s external border controls. The goals are shared by the EPP-affiliated National Coalition party in their election manifesto. The prospective governing partners also agree on deepening European defence and security cooperation.

 

The coalition could potentially be strengthened with the ALDE-affiliated Centre Party, despite the election beating. Much of this depends now on the replacement to the outgoing prime minister Juha Sipilä, who announced his resignation as the party’s leader two days after the elections. This would give the new government a healthy 132-seat majority, but most likely also slow down the decision-making of politically already thinly spread coalition.

 

Certain uncertainties: will the populist right take over after all?

 

In a scenario where the future coalition government would feature the Finns Party, Finland’s contributions in the Council would obviously stem from a much less integrationist source. Despite the nativist party’s expressed willingness to govern, however, it seems at the moment highly unlikely that the SDP in particular would be open to the idea of sharing governmental duties with the populists.

 

Yet, as political opportunism raises its ugly head and the realities of coalition negotiations emerge to the fore, it becomes increasingly more difficult to predict what will happen. Earlier this month, for instance, a right-wing populist coalition blocked the Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas from becoming Estonia’s first female prime minister, despite her party winning the elections. But what will almost certainly prove to be a damaging, short-termist move to the career of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas across the Gulf of Finland could be even worse for the centre-right in Helsinki given the size of the Finns Party. Nonetheless, this has not stopped the National Coalition leader Petteri Orpo from declaring that his party would be open to negotiating governing arrangements also with the right-wing populists.

 

Ultimately, the uncertain coalition talks are likely to consume much-needed media attention from the European Elections in five weeks’ time. The last time the two elections coincided in Finland was in 1999, resulting in the worst Finnish turnout on the European level (31.4%). In the worst-case scenario, Finland does not even have a government in place before its Council presidency term begins in July.

 

What is certain, however, is that the new Finnish government should under any configuration oppose the ratification of any future trade deal with the United States that does not include handing the Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship gold medals to their rightful owners.

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An honest broker?

  • January 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

An honest broker?

Romania assumes its first EU Presidency amid difficult times

Source: Max Pixel

 

Welcome to the year that will shape the future of Europe – a year marked by uncertainty over Brexit, European Election results, and the multiannual financial framework (MFF). All four of the EU’s top positions – the Commission, Council, Parliament and Central Bank presidencies – will have new holders before the year is done. (Assuming that the fragmented Parliament can find a majority to confirm a new Commission leader, that is.) It is against this backdrop that Romania assumed the six-month rotating EU Presidency this January for the first time since joining the EU in 2007.

 

The Presidency offers Romania an indispensable window to improve its image among the other member states and grow its influence on European policy topics such as common defence and accession negotiations with the Western Balkans countries. Responsible for chairing the meetings of Council configurations and preparatory bodies, the country will have the ability to shape the EU’s agenda with issues of national importance from security policy on the Black Sea neighbourhood to redefining the future vision for Europe. On the latter, the informal Sibiu summit on Europe Day to conclude the Future of Europe debate provides Romania with an additional opportunity to host and present its views to both EU and national leaders at a crucial time – six weeks after Brexit and two weeks before the European Elections.

 

The Presidency will also present Romania with a useful tool to build trust and alliances within the EU, which it has so far struggled to develop as a member of the bloc. Indeed, trust and coalitions will certainly be needed as Romania tries to guide and coordinate the policy positions of 28 member states on the MFF, Brexit, and a vast number of legislative proposals in time before the end of the Parliament and Commission’s mandates. This is Romania’s chance to rise to the occasion, and according to the Romanian EU Affairs minister George Ciamba the country wants to act as an “honest broker” that creates cohesion, maintains unity, and oversees the successful transition between parliamentary terms and EU budgets.

 

Yet, the Romanian EU Presidency has been largely shadowed by the debate over the country’s domestic political situation and doubts of its preparedness to assume the responsibility of presiding over EU members. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, for instance, expressed his concerns three days before the turn of the year, stating that “the Bucharest government has not fully understood what it means to chair the EU countries”. The EU has been frustrated with the governing coalition’s efforts to undermine judicial independence and the rule of law, which turned the relationship between Brussels and Bucharest particularly sour only months before the start of the Presidency. In November, the Commission issued eight new recommendations to prevent the misuse of the criminal code in Romania while the European Parliament passed a resolution addressing its deep concern with the government’s revision of judicial and criminal legislation, but no European disciplinary measures have been adopted yet. The proposed legislation, which includes the decriminalisation of some corruption offences and reduces prison sentences for politicians, has also triggered large protests in the country.

 

This challenge on the rule of law bears a particular risk to the country’s long-standing fight against corruption. Thousands of Romanian political figures have been successfully convicted on corruption charges especially in the last five years, largely as a result of the anti-corruption operations led by Laura Codruța Kövesi, who was appointed as the National Anticorruption Directorate’s (DNA) chief prosecutor in 2013. Following the 2016 electoral success of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD) under the leadership of party leader Liviu Dragnea, however, the anti-corruption wave has faced increasing resistance and hostility from the political elite. Dragnea, who received a two-year suspended sentence on electoral fraud in 2016 and thus cannot serve as the prime minister, controls the cabinet and has led the appointment of three prime ministers in two years.

 

Chief Prosecutor Kövesi was controversially ousted by the government from her position in July 2018 – a month after Dragnea had received a new three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on corruption, which is currently pending appeal. The party leader has also recently filed a lawsuit against the Commission after its anti-fraud office OLAF accused Dragnea of misusing €21 million from EU funds, while the SPD is perhaps unsurprisingly drafting a new legislative proposal to grant amnesty to anyone serving an under 5-year sentence on corruption. Meanwhile, the interim chief prosecutor who replaced Kövesi, Anca Jurma, announced her resignation this week citing a “hostile environment”. But despite the corruption and growing contempt for the rule of law, the opposition parties have been unable to put together an alternative coalition, leading to the SPD-led government to survive a no-confidence vote on 20 December.

 

It remains to be seen how much the domestic political turbulence will affect the Romanian Presidency during the next six months. Responding to the concerns in an interview with Politico, EU Minister Ciamba dismissed the dysfunctional national scene, saying that the presidency will be largely in the hands of civil servants and Romanian diplomats. We can only hope so.

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Our Man in Vienna

  • June 2018
  • Edo Katanic

Our Man in Vienna

Some thoughts on the Austrian EU presidency

 

Source: Krone.at

 

Next week Austria will be taking over the EU presidency from Bulgaria. It will be the third time for the Alpine country to preside over the EU and it will be the last full presidency before the EU elections, which will take place next May. Therefore, a lot of work lies ahead, especially regarding the legislative proposals. Some initial thoughts and priorities have already been discussed many times in the European media. Just to name a few, there are significant issues such as the MFF, security and defence, managing migration and asylum, as well as the one and only Brexit. However, in reality what can we expect? The motto for the Austrian presidency is “The Europe that protects”, so that can be quite revealing from the start.

 

 

First of all, Austria has been (now notoriously) vocal in shifting to the political right after last autumn’s parliamentary elections. The country has been ruled for the past 6-7 months by a coalition government of an increasingly right-wing Austrian People’s Party (EPP group in the European Parliament), led by young and charismatic Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and the far right Freedom Party of Austria (ENF group in the European Parliament), led by the not-so-young but quite charismatic Heinz Christian Strache, now the Vice Chancellor of Austria.

 

 

What can be visible nowadays, especially having in mind last Sunday’s mini-EU summit on migration, is Kurz’s plan to promote himself as the leader of the new and rebranded European conservatives, basically the same thing that he did in Austria last year. Ideally, he would like to give Austria a stronger voice in dictating European politics than anyone would have expected. This would mean that he wants to promote the new and a more right-wing EPP, which would be much tougher on migration and security issues, obliterating the legacy of Angela Merkel and her 2015 approach. That is why special attention will be paid to the reform of the asylum system and the issues on the Mediterranean. His recent clumsy statement on the “Axis of the willing” and the latest ideas such as building EU screening centre’s for migrants outside the EU, are probably the best examples of that.

 

 

Source: World Bulletin

 

Regarding the EU enlargement, Kurz will try to influence other Member States into adopting an approach where the Western Balkans are encouraged to enter the EU, as Austria has a strong economic interest in that, while strictly opposing the entrance of Turkey. It is a view that gains him a lot of points on the domestic (Austrian) field, where the majority opposes Turkish EU membership, and he believes that countries with a large Turkish diaspora, such as Germany and The Netherlands, can be his allies on the topic.

 

 

At the same time, while he takes control of the EU presidency and focuses on these issues, he will leave his coalition partner FPO to play a more prominent role in Austrian internal politics. After all, there is a reason why Kurz insisted that all the EU work should be placed under the Chancellor’s office, while leaving the other issues to FPO-led Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Finally, everyone is aware that there are certain limits that the EU presidency brings, so Kurz is playing on the same card that brought him the victory in the Austrian elections. To present himself as the “saviour of EU” and as a solution-oriented conservative. All in all it will be a very interesting presidency, with many challenges and issues that have to be solved.

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