Tag Archives: verhofstadt

It’s time for Flanders to put up or shut up… and leave

Citizens in Brussels took to downtown to write messages of love and peace in the wake of horrific terror attacks Tuesday. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)
Citizens in Brussels took to downtown to write messages of love and peace in the wake of horrific terror attacks Tuesday. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

At the heart of the tragic jihadist assault on Brussels this week lies what economics and political scientists know as a collective action problem.Belgium Flagflanders flag

Within the hollowed-out central state of Belgium, virtually no one wants to foot the bill for the kind of counter-terrorism, security and police investigation operations that Brussels needed to avert Tuesday’s horrific simultaneous airport and subway attacks. The European Commission, which calls Brussels home, has neither the power nor the inclination to provide a supranational layer of security to the city.

Brussels, a majority French-speaking city, is its own region, though it lies completely outside the borders of the left-leaning, French-speaking Wallonia. Meanwhile, the more economically vibrant Flemish-speaking Flanders has, as a condition for keeping the Belgian union together for the past half-century, increasingly demanded more regional powers from both Wallonia and Brussels.

No one — at the European level, at the national level or at either of the Walloon or Flemish regional level — has a proper incentive to fund what’s obviously become a disproportionate security cost for Brussels, in particular (and not, say, Antwerp or Ghent or Charleroi).

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RELATED: Is Belgium destined for breakup after
another inconclusive vote?

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While there are obviously many reasons for Tuesday’s terror attacks, it’s no surprise that Brussels recurs as the setting for jihadist attacks. Radical Islamists in the Molenbeek community, now an infamous byword for jihadist agitation in Europe, were central to planning the 2004 Madrid attacks, last November’s attacks in Paris and, now, the terrorist strike that Belgian authorities feared four months ago — and that forced Brussels itself into a four-day lockdown as police forces tried to stymie a terrorist plot last November.

Just four months after the Paris attacks, planned from Brussels, brought the Belgian capital to a standstill for 96 hours, and just four days after Belgian police, at long last, captured Salah Abdeslam, the remaining suspect in last year’s Paris attacks, Belgian authorities were already on high alert.

That didn’t matter. Tragedy still struck. Continue reading It’s time for Flanders to put up or shut up… and leave

The mother-of-all-battles over European integration has begun


Three days after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, with leaders at the national and European level firing the first shots in what promises to be an epic battle over European integration — and that will determine who really calls the shots in the European Union.European_Union

Last night, at an informal meeting of the European Council, the leaders of all 28 member-states of the European Union met to discuss how to approach the election of the next president of the European Commission, the powerful regulatory and executive arm of the European Union. The term of current president José Manuel Barroso, who has served in the role since 2004, will end within six months.

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RELATED: In depth — European parliamentary elections

RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are real four contests

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They poured cold water on the notion that they would automatically propose former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president. Since Sunday, Juncker has stridently made his case that as the Commission presidential candidate (the ‘Spitzenkandiat‘) of the European People’s Party (EPP), which won the greatest number of seats in Sunday’s EU-wide elections, he should have the first right to attempt to assemble a parliamentary majority. That’s a position that, ironically, even the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES), the second-largest bloc in the European Parliament has endorsed:

Commenting on the leaders’ decision, outgoing Socialist group leader Hannes Swoboda tweeted that it’s “absurd that Juncker has our backing to start negotiations but is blocked in the Council by his own EPP family!”

It’s already starting to appear that, behind the scenes, the EPP, which won around 214 seats, and the PES, which won around 191 seats, are coming closer to forming a ‘grand coalition’ to back Juncker’s candidacy in a bid to assert the precedent that the Parliament should be the institution to determine the Commission presidency, not the Council. Both Juncker and the PES Spitzenkandidat, German social democrat Martin Schulz, have argued repeatedly that the Parliament should reject any Commission president that wasn’t among the original Spitzenkandidaten.

But it’s not so simple. The Commission president must win not only a parliamentary majority. He or she must also win a qualified majority among the heads of government and state that comprise the  Council, and enthusiasm among those leaders seems to be flagging for Juncker.

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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

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The key player, German chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured above), seemed testy in two press conferences since the election when asked about the looming showdown. As the leader of one of the top parties in the EPP, she officially supports Juncker, but her comments should hardly give Juncker comfort:

She also thanked Juncker for the “good campaign” he ran for the European People’s Party, but seemed slightly irritated by the avalanche of questions as to whether she backs Juncker to become the next EU commission president.

“I don’t decide who gets the post. Juncker is our candidate, the EPP candidate, and we will put his name forward in the discussions. It’s always been said that it’s up to the strongest group to put forward the candidate, but just being the strongest group is not enough, a majority is required,” she said.

Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

If you believe the hype, the contest between Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured above, right) and Germany’s Martin Schulz (pictured above, left) is the European equivalent to the American election of 1800.European_Union

Fully 214 years ago, American voters (or, more accurately, white, male American property-holders) went to the polls in what was just the second contested presidential election in US history, pitting the incumbent, John Adams of Massachusetts, against Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.

The aftermath of that election demonstrated flaws in the nascent American democracy’s constitution when Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, both received 73 votes in the US electoral college.  The clear intention was always that Burr was Jefferson’s running mate. Yet as a technical matter, the two candidates were tied in the only presidential vote that mattered in the electoral college. Jefferson ultimately prevailed, but only after 36 grueling ballots in the US House of Representatives. Four years later, the United States adopted the 12th amendment to its constitution, separating the electoral college vote for president and vice president.

Which is to say, new political systems often go through growing pains and their fair share of trial-and-error.

So it will be with the European Union. The Treaty of Lisbon, which came into effect in 2009, directs the European Council (the group of 28 European heads of state and/or government) to ‘propose’ a candidate for president of the European Commission (the European Union’s chief executive and regulatory body) to be ‘elected’ by the European Parliament.

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RELATEDIn Depth: European parliamentary elections

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Each of Europe’s major families of political parties took the new treaty language as a sign to field Commission presidential candidates in advance of this weekend’s European elections. Though five groups ultimately selected candidates, the greatest attention has focused upon those of the two largest blocs in the European Parliament, Juncker’s center-right, Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP) and Schulz’s center-left, social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES).

As the Europe-wide candidates of their respective parliamentary groups, Juncker and Schulz have become the standard-bearers of the most pan-European election campaign in history. They’ve traveled the breadth of the European Union, and they’ve faced off in debate after debate. The challengers have become delightfully known as the Spitzenkandidaten in Germany, a neologism that’s caught on throughout the European Union.

But beyond the symbolism and the novelty, does anyone in Europe care? Continue reading Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

Festival of Europe Open day 2012 in Strasbourg

It’s hard to know exactly how to place the European parliamentary elections in the constellation of world politics. European_Union

From one perspective, they’re relatively unimportant — a largely apathetic electorate is choosing a body of 751 MEPs in a parliament that has less power within the European Union than most parliamentary bodies have within national governments. The Council of the European Union gives member-states veto power over EU legislation and the European Commission, the regulatory executive of the European Union, has the power to introduce legislation. Voters, since the first direct elections in 1979, have turned out in ever lower proportions with each election cycle. To the extent you talk to European voters who actually care about the elections, they mostly view them as an opportunity for a protest vote.

From another perspective, they’re incredibly important. They represent the one point of genuine democratic participation within the European Union and, given the tumult of the past five years with respect to the eurozone, the European economy and the power of relatively wealthier states to dictate the monetary policy and, increasingly, the fiscal policy of weaker states, the current elections  represent a major conversation about the future of EU policy. That’s especially true in the context of the weighty matters that the next European Parliament will face, including a new data privacy directive and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a potentially game-changing free-trade agreement with the United States.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections

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So which is the right interpretation?

It can be both — and many things besides — depending on your view. That’s because the European parliamentary elections are really four separate political contests, wrapped up and presented as one set of elections. The relative importance or unimportance that a particular actor places on the ‘European elections’ depends upon which of the four ‘contests’ most resonates.

So what are the four contests simultaneously raging across Europe? Continue reading The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

Photo of the day: Guy Verhofstadt’s tie


The five major candidates elected by their respective European parties to become the next president of the European Commission are debating today in a (mostly) English-language debate on the future of the European Union.European_UnionBelgium Flag

It’s jarring enough that a debate among two Germans, a Greek, a Luxembourger and a Belgian on the future of Europe is taking place officially in English. I’ll have some more thoughts in the coming days on the contest among the European Commission presidential contest.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections

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For now, as I watch the debate, the candidate with the most energy is former almost certainly former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt. He’s the candidate of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE), currently the third-largest bloc in the European Parliament, and comprised of many of Europe’s economically and socially liberal parties.

Verhofstadt, who belongs to the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD, Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten), served as Belgium’s prime minister from 1999 to 2008, and he’s more responsible for orienting Belgium toward a Thatcherite economic orientation than just about anyone else in the past four decades in that country (Belgium will also hold its national elections on May 25, the same day as most countries will vote in the European parliamentary elections).

He’s also the candidate with the best tie, hands-down. Can you imagine a US presidential candidate wearing such a fashion-forward tie on the campaign trail, let alone a presidential debate? Continue reading Photo of the day: Guy Verhofstadt’s tie

In Depth: European Parliament

(43) EU parliamentary chamber

On the last full weekend of May, European voters in 28 member-states with a population of over 500 million will determine all 751 members of the European Parliament.European_Union

The political context of the 2014 parliamentary elections

Since the last elections in June 2009, the European Union has been through a lot of ups and downs, though mostly just downs. After the 2008-09 financial crisis, the eurozone went through its own financial crisis, as bond yields spiked in troubled Mediterranean countries like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal with outsized public debt, sclerotic government sectors and economies operating near zero-growth. Eastern European countries, facing sharp downturns themselves, and a corresponding drop in revenues, implemented tough budget cuts and tax increases to mollify bond markets. Ireland, which nationalized its banking sector, faced similar austerity measures. European Central Bank president Mario Draghi’s promise in the summer of 2012 to do ‘whatever it takes’ to maintain the eurozone marked the turning point, ending over two years of speculation that Greece and other countries might have to exit the eurozone. Many countries, however, are still mired in high unemployment and sluggish growth prospects.

One new member-state joined the European Union, Croatia, in July 2013, bringing the total number to 28, though Iceland, Serbia and Montenegro all became official candidates for future EU membership:


Politically speaking, since the 2009 elections, only two of the leaders in the six largest EU countries are still in power (Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, a centrist, and German chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian democrat) reflecting a climate that’s been tough on incumbent governments. Spain and the United Kingdom took turns to the political right, and France and Italy took turns to the political left, but none of those governments seems especially popular today — and each of them will face a tough battle in the voting later this month.

Of course, that’s only if voters even bother to turn out. Since the European Parliament’s first elections in 1979, turnout has declined in each subsequent election — to just 43.23% in the latest 2009 elections:

EU turnoutAt the European level, the Treaty of Lisbon, a successor to the ill-fated attempt to legislate a European constitution in the mid-2000s, took effect in December 2009, scrambling the relationships among the seven institutions.

 The elections, which will unfold over four days between May 22 and May 25, are actually about much, much more than just electing the legislators of the European Union’s parliamentary body, which comprises just one of three lawmaking bodies within the European Union. Continue reading In Depth: European Parliament

14 in 2014: European Union parliamentary elections


9. European Union parliamentary elections, May 22-25.European_Union

If for no other reason, the upcoming elections for the European Parliament will be the most important since direct EP elections began in 1979 because under the new Lisbon Treaty, it will be the European Parliament that decides who will become the next chair of the European Commission, the chief executive organ of the European Union (though German chancellor Angela Merkel has argued that the treaty’s language indicates that the Commission appointment need only ‘take into account’ the EP elections).  In any event, it still means that early in 2014, each of the major cross-national party groupings within the European Parliament will designate their nominees to succeed José Manuel Barroso, the former center-right Portuguese prime minister who will step down in November 2014 after a decade heading the Commission.

The eight European Parliament will have 751 members, over 56% of whom will come from just six member-states: Germany (96), France (74), the United Kingdom (73), Italy (73), Spain (54) and Poland (51).  Four states, Estonia, Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus, will elect the minimum number of representatives (six).

Between 1979 and 1999, the Party of European Socialists (PES) and its predecessor was the largest group in the European Parliament.  Its members include the major center-left socialist/social democratic parties of Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, and the labour parties of Ireland, Malta, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Since 1999, however, the European People’s Party (EPP), a group of center-right and Christian democratic parties, have held the largest number of seats.  In the most recent 2009 elections, the EPP won 265 seats to just 183 for the PES.  The EPP’s members include the major Christian democratic parties in Benelux, the Austrian People’s Party, the French UMP, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union Greece’s New Democracy, Hungary’s Fidesz, Ireland’s centrist Fine Gael, Italy’s Forza Italia, Portugal’s Social Democratic Party, Poland’s Civic Platform, Spain’s People’s Party and Sweden’s Moderate Party.

The third-largest group, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE), contains includes most of Europe’s liberal parties, notably Belgium’s Open VLD, the Danish Venestre, Luxembourg’s newly elected Liberals, the Dutch VVD, the British Liberal Democrats, and Ireland’s Fianna Fáil.

Other groups include:

  • the European Green Party (which includes essentially all of Europe’s green and ecological parties),
  • the Party of the European Left (whose members include the German Die Linke and Greece’s SYRIZA),
  • the slightly eurosceptic Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (whose members include the Czech Civic Democrats, the UK Conservatives and Poland’s Law and Justice Party),
  • the Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy, formed in 2009 as another slightly euroskeptic group (whose members includes Italy’s Northern League, the Danish People’s Party and the Finns Party), and
  • the European Alliance for Freedom, formed in 2010 as a staunchly euroskeptic, far-right group (whose members include the French National Front, the Dutch Party of Freedom, the Flemish Vlaams Belang and Austria’s Freedom Party).

Although the EPP won’t determine its candidate for Commission president until a convention on March 6-7 and ALDE won’t determine its candidate until February 1, the PES has already nominated Martin Schulz, a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party and president of the European Parliament since 2012. Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, Luxembourg’s Viviane Reding, the Commission’s vice president and current commissioner for justice, former Luxembourgish prime minister and Eurogroup chair Jean-Claude Juncker, former Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė, Swedish prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde of France have all been touted as possible EPP candidates.  ALDE will choose between former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt and Finland’s Olli Rehn, currently commissioner for economic and monetary affairs.

Herman Van Rompuy, former Belgian prime minister and the first president of the European Council, the council of European heads of state/government, will also step down at the end of 2014 after two 2.5-year terms in that position.   The first EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton of the United Kingdom, is also likely to step down.

Given the tumult of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, almost everyone expects that European voters may use the elections as an opportunity to register dissatisfaction with the direction of European governance.  In particular, that could bode well for the stridently leftist MEP candidates — most notably in Greece, where SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) of Alexis Tsipras leads EP polls.  It could also bode well for euroskeptic candidates — most notably in the United Kingdom, where Nigel Farage (pictured above) and his anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is competing for first place with the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in EP polls, and in France, where Marine Le Pen’s nationalist Front National (FN, National Front) leads EP polls.

Photo credit to Lucas Schifes.

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