It may one day be the case that European Parliament elections are fought on a truly pan-territorial basis, with parties, politicians and platforms all operating at a European level. That is not going to happen this year, but there are moves in that direction. The party groups in the European Parliament have mostly issued manifestos, which will supplement or complement those issued by their member national parties. Most of the groups have identified leaders (spitzenkandidaten) they hope to catapult, if Member States allow, into the Presidency of the Commission. And across the EU, some 20 candidates have put themselves forward in countries of which they are not nationals. This is not yet a fully European agora, but it is possible to glimpse a tender shoot unfurling.
In this context, the manifestos of the mainstream party groups offer some insights into what might transpire after the elections at the end of May. There are texts available from the European People’s Party (EPP), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S and D), and the European Greens (EG). In addition, President Macron has issued his own pan-European call to arms, in an address to the ‘Citizens of Europe’, which can be read as the manifesto of En Marche.
None of these texts quite resembles a national manifesto in making concrete commitments. It would be easy – too easy – to write a parody of the panegyric which permeates these documents to shared European values and aspirations. The number of ‘we wills’ is low. Partly, the lack of specificity reflects an appreciation of the limited powers of the European Parliament, and even of the Commission, in the face of Member States. Partly, too, it needs to be understood that European party group manifestos need to be careful not to contradict the varied national manifestos to which most voters will turn.
Nevertheless, and from the perspective of international development, there are valuable pointers, depending on who wins, and in some cases whoever wins, as to how Europe might change. Indeed, change seems inevitable: the Introduction to the recent foresight study published for the EU by ESPAS, the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System, argues that
‘Seismic global power shifts; pressure on liberal democracies; challenges to global governance; the transformation of economic models and the very fabric of societies; new uses and misuses of technology; contrasting demographic patterns; and humanity’s growing ecological footprint – the world is well on its way towards a new geopolitical, geo-economic and geotechnological order. ‘
In this context, few of the manifestos can be read as a joyful embrace of further globalisation. Europe needs to be a ‘beacon’ of democracy, peace and stability (S&D), but this is mainly because the world is less secure, and Europe is threatened by trade rivals, authoritarian regimes, terrorism, ‘uncontrolled migration’ and nationalism (EPP). ALDE talks about a ‘united Europe, open to the world’ and President Macron about ‘resisting the temptation of isolation and division’ – but certainly in the latter case, as a prelude to some quite tough messages.
One of the tough message is on migration. All recognise the plight and rights of refugees. However, President Macron is explicit about security being dependent on strict border controls, enforced by common standards and rules, and by a common Border Force. This is also the line taken by the EPP: accelerating the deployment of 10,000 EU border security guards is one of the ‘guarantees’ offered by the EPP’s candidate for President of the European Commission, Manfred Weber.
None of the manifestos commits explicitly to the 23 ‘objectives’ for safe, orderly and regular migration of the Global Compact for Migration, approved by the UN in December 2018. Nor is there much discussion of the problem of aid being diverted away from poverty reduction and towards migration management. However, some manifestos give priority to the need for better planned migration. This is the case for S&D, ALDE and the European Greens. ALDE, in particular, advocate for better legal routes and a reform of the EU’s blue card work permit system. The Greens and S&D also talk about better legal routes. Reform of the Dublin system for managing asylum applications is a priority, for example for the Greens; ALDE also want a humane and effective Common European Asylum System.
There are differences when it comes to relations on migration with third countries. The EPP are in favour of supporting reception centres in Mediterranean countries outside the EU, as is ALDE. The Greens, by contrast, specifically ‘reject any plans for controlled centres or regional disembarkation platforms outside of the EU’. They also insist on sharing refugees around the EU, taking account of family ties.
The trade sections also contain some tough messages, but also illustrate differences. The Greens are hostile to past trade agreements, concluded in secret, which have neglected social, environmental and public service concerns. President Macron wants to see Europe ‘penalising or banning businesses that compromise our strategic interests and fundamental values such as environmental standards, data protection and fair payment of taxes; and the adoption of European preference in strategic industries and our public procurement’. ALDE, on the other hand say that ‘it is our duty as liberals to stand for, and defend, the benefits of free and fair trade. We will always remain outspoken in defence of open, rule-based, and free trade underpinned by a strong World Trade Organisation’. S and D say that ‘we will make sure the EU includes binding social and environmental standards, human rights, consumer protection and workers’ rights in all future trade agreements. These agreements should be subject to democratic oversight, ensuring the due participation of civil society’.
It is not clear what the implications of these different positions might be for access to the EU’s markets by low income developing countries, or for the future of Economic Partnership Agreements with groups of developing countries. It is possible to imagine that the poorest countries will need additional help and investment to conform to rising environmental standards. Further, do the parties have a vision of how they will engage with the African Continental Free Trade Area, which has now received the necessary 22 ratifications, enabling implementation to begin?
In other areas, there is more agreement. Climate change is highlighted by all the party groups, mostly with approving references to existing modalities like the Energy Union and the Emissions Trading Scheme. There are various new proposals, like a Sustainable Development Pact (S&D), a European Climate Law (the Greens), or a European Climate Bank (President Macron). There is no reference, however, to the need for higher levels of ambition to be made evident in revised national climate plans, expected in 2020, in time for the UNFCCC meeting at the end of the year. Is there a ‘climate emergency’ or is there not?
On security also, there seems to be general agreement that Europe should assume a more important role in defence. President Macron calls for a European Security Council. The EPP and ALDE both advocate, perhaps surprisingly and controversially, for Qualified Majority Voting in matters of security and foreign policy. None of the Party Groups discusses the proposed new European Peace Facility, designed inter alia to replace the African Peace Facility and strengthen the EU’s global role.
When it comes to Africa, and especially to aid, the messages are positive. S&D call for a new partnership with Africa, the EPP for a Marshall Plan for Africa, and President Macron for a Covenant with Africa. There are specific references to 0.7 in the S&D and Green manifestos. ALDE ‘believe the EU must continue to play its leading role in development cooperation’, with greater efficiency and better cooperation between Member States. However, there is little discussion of some key issues, including the low share of EU aid to least developed and low income countries, inappropriate aid spending on security and migration issues, or partnership arrangements following the end of the Cotonou Agreement. It is a startling fact that only 27% of EU aid is spent in least developed countries, and only 26% in sub-Saharan Africa. The EU has failed to meet its target that 20% of aid spending should be on health, education and other aspects of ‘human development’. And there are large questions pending about the balance of aid spending as between the Neighbourhood and other regions: it is notable that the 7 largest recipients are all in Europe (e.g. Turkey, Serbia, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina) or around the Mediterranean (Morocco, Tunisia, West Bank and Gaza).
The Multi-Annual Financial Framework
Where many of these proposals should become operational is in the budget. Issues of tax and spend would normally be at the heart of a manifesto. In the case of this sample, that is not so much the case. The reason is that the main focus after the election will be to approve the Multi-Annual Financial Framework for 2021-27 – a period which begins nearly half way into the term of the new parliament, and extends for three and a half years after it ends. The Parliament will have little say on spending during its mandate. The lack of synchronicity between budgetary and political cycles is one of the least defensible features of the EU political architecture. There are some general statements in the manifestos, especially about the desirability of increasing the amount of funding raised independently of Member States (own resources). ALDE call for a rethink of agricultural subsidies, the Greens for a green new deal.
Questions for the EU’s political groups
This leaves us in something of a quandary. Lots of generalities. Not many specific commitments. No budget. How is one to choose? It is tempting to treat the manifestos as a ‘pick’n’mix’, choosing policies from each of the offerings. That does not quite work when votes have to be cast.
Instead, there needs to be opportunity to cross-examine the parties. There are 10 questions it would be good to ask, some perhaps covered or hinted at in the manifestos, some not:
- Do you accept the Sustainable Development Goals as an organising framework for the future, inside the EU and externally?
- Progress in achieving the SDGs is ‘insufficient’. What actions should the EU institutions take to remedy shortfalls?
- Do you support the 23 objectives of the UN Global Compact for Migration, for safe orderly and regular migration? What changes in EU policy do you support to ensure they are implemented?
- What are your specific proposals for reform of the Dublin Regulation and the Common European Asylum System?
- Will you commit to protecting the budget for external action in the proposed Multi-Annual Financial Framework?
- Will you agree to accept and defend the OECD/DAC rules on the definition of Official Development Assistance, including with respect to security and migration spending?
- Will you commit to increasing the share of EU aid that is spent in low income and least developed countries?
- Will you commit to supporting more ambitious climate plans from developing countries, if submitted to the UNFCCC in 2020?
- What are your plans for Economic Partnership Agreements, taking account of the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area?
- Will you commit to supporting the proposed European Peace Facility and to growing the EU’s civil and military missions, if needed to support peace-making or peace-keeping in developing countries?
It goes without saying that these questions could also be asked of parties at national level.
Author: Simon Maxwell