EU leaders look for answers amid euroscepticism

2014-05-27 15:07
Flags of the EU member states fly outside the European Parliament in Brussels. (AFP, File)

Flags of the EU member states fly outside the European Parliament in Brussels. (AFP, File)

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Brussels - European leaders were set to carry out a post-mortem on Tuesday, with calls for reforms to the bloc following the dramatic breakthrough of nationalist, eurosceptic and anti-immigrant parties in EU elections.

Shaken by a thrashing at the hands of the far-right National Front (FN) in the bloc's second biggest economy, French President Francois Hollande set the tone for the meeting by calling for changes to a "remote and incomprehensible" EU.

The election served up a clear message - voters are fed up with years in the economic doldrums and the stinging austerity policies pushed by aloof EU bureaucrats in Brussels who insist that 'more Europe, not less,' is the answer.

Au contraire! Hollande said as he called for EU powers to be reined in after the humiliating defeat of his Socialist Party in Sunday's election.

"This cannot continue. Europe has to be simple, clear, to be effective where it is needed and to withdraw from where it is not necessary," Hollande told the nation in a televised address.

Basking in her shock victory, FN leader Marine le Pen said the French people "no longer want to be ruled from outside, to have to submit to laws they did not vote for or to obey (EU officials) who are not subject to the legitimacy of universal suffrage".

Across the Channel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, with one eye on national elections next year, was singing the same tune after the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) topped the polls, having won over many of his conservative voters.

"Leaders should seize the opportunity [Tuesday] to heed the views expressed at the ballot box that the EU needs to change and to show it cannot be business as usual," Cameron's Downing Street office said.

Merkel sees need for change

In marked contrast to Cameron and Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out of the European Parliament elections relatively unscathed but she too stressed the need for change.

The results were "quite remarkable and regrettable but now the point is to win those voters back," Merkel said, adding that "growth and jobs [are] the best answer".

The EU's 500 million people were not interested in the EU's arcane politicking, Merkel said, they want answers to "the question of how Europe affects them and their lives".

However, European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso - the EU's top bureaucrat - saw the outcome differently.

Yes, the eurosceptics and other dissenters had made their voice heard but the pro-EU camp of the centre-right, centre-left and Liberals would still have "a very solid and workable majority in the European Parliament," Barroso said.

"It is extremely important that the political forces that led and supported the essential steps in the EU's joint crisis response, notably the political forces represented in the European Commission, have overall won once again," he said.

The latest Parliament projections give the conservative European People's Party (EPP) 213 seats out of 751, with the Socialists on 190 and the Liberals 64.

The anti-EU camp will likely have about 140 seats but analysts question whether it will be able to operate in a coherent fashion given the wide range of opinions they include.

Top EU appointments

The 28 EU leaders gather in Brussels from 1700 GMT to discuss the election results and draw conclusions for policy ahead of hectic summer which will see all the top EU officials replaced, beginning with a new head for the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.

This Commission post now becomes even more critical - firstly, in light of the election results, which EU leaders are supposed to weigh when they make their choice.

Previously, they settled the issue among themselves after hard bargaining.

Secondly, the five main parliament groups put up their own candidates to head the Commission and have warned they fully expect EU leaders to name one of them to the post.

Parliament is the EU's only directly elected body, they argue, and so choosing from them is the best way to bolster the bloc's democratic credibility, one of the vulnerabilities the anti-EU parties capitalised on so successfully.

The question is whether the election outcome makes EU leaders more or less likely to do that.

Herman Van Rompuy, the head of the European Council which groups the 28 member state leaders, has made clear that they are not ready to give up their prerogatives lightly.

The new head of the Commission, due to be named in July, will have to command "a majority in the European Parliament and a large majority in the Council," Van Rompuy said shortly before the election, putting the stress on the latter requirement.

Tuesday's meeting is not supposed to discuss any names for the Commission post, rather the policy direction it needs to take, EU officials said.

EU leaders will also review the situation in Ukraine after presidential elections there Sunday.
Read more on:    ukip  |  eu  |  david cameron  |  francois hollande  |  belgium
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