The EU’s very own Time Lord (H/T Doctor Who) proposes to fast-track the clock changes by 1 April 2019, which is either an early April Fool or an underhand way of relegating the newly departed Brits into their own unique time zone. The end to daylight saving was supposed to be this year’s big idea, following on from last year’s pledge to end fish-finger inequality, but the real state of the Union was more apparent in the debate over Hungary than in Juncker’s drawn-out speech. His celebration of European unity could not gloss over the widening gulf between East and West, which will haunt the 2019 elections as well as colour key debates on the future budget and migration.
The vote to start Article 7 proceedings against Hungary has far-reaching consequences. This was the first time the Parliament has called on the Council to act on threats to the EU’s founding values, with the case against Poland being initiated by the Commission. The result was always going to come down to how the EPP voted and party leaders heaped pressure on Manfred Weber, arguing that the very soul of the EPP was at stake. The fact that he finally lost patience with Viktor Orban and gave his support to the motion has probably more to do with the calculation that he needs plenary’s support if he is to become Commission president than with any radical change of heart. His move seemed to be part of a coordinated EPP manoeuvre, with Austrian president Sebastian Kurz and EPP president Joseph Daul, both publicly coming out in favour of action. The real test of EPP resolve will come with the pressure now to expel Fidesz from the EPP. Losing over a dozen MEPs in the next parliament is a far harder pill to swallow than a symbolic vote on Article 7 which realistically everyone knows will never get unanimous support in Council for sanctions.
In the past Weber has justified his decision not to expel Orban’s party by claiming that the starting point of Brexit was the decision by David Cameron to take his Tories out the EPP group. The fear is not so much that expulsion would lead to Huxit but that it would further boost support for populists in the May elections and make Orban a pivotal player in a new bloc of Eurosceptic MEPs. Many EPP Members who voted against Article 7, most notably Italian and French members, argued that this was also playing into the hands of Macron, who would benefit the most from a rift within the EPP. Expect also to see more fingers pointed at Socialist governments in Malta, Slovakia and Romania, and the S&D group will surely be made to squirm when rule of law in Romania is debated at the next plenary session.
The Socialists should beware of being too smug over the EPP’s identity crisis as they struggle with their own dramatic fall in popularity. The result in Sweden was the latest shock to the Socialist establishment, although what the French or Italian parties would give for 28% in the polls. Udo Bullmann, the S&D leader, used the visit of Alexis Tsipras, to invite him to join forces with the rejuvenated Spanish and Portuguese parties to form a new Mediterranean alliance. Just don’t call it Club Med.
Fears of external political manipulation in the run up to the elections featured highly in the SOTU debate and Juncker promised protection against third countries (read Russia) or private interests (Cambridge Analytica). Guy Verhofstadt went a step further and called for a Mueller-style special prosecutor. Their first job might be to investigate the rather odd press conference this week from the latest UKIP leader, Gerard Batten, who paraded two new recruits from the Alt-right, You Tubers with the catchy handles of Count Dankula and Sargon of Akkad. They were in Strasbourg to defend freedom of speech on the internet which has become their latest rallying cry. Former leader Nigel Farage, now part-time radio presenter and very part-time MEP, was more concerned with presenting Jean-Claude Juncker with a pair of Union Jack socks. They obviously did the trick as following his speech he said “for the first time in the Brexit process, I think they want to make a deal”.