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perspective

Why the European Union needs Germany as an anchor 


Depending on who you ask, the Italian electorate’s sound rejection of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reforms in last Sunday’s referendum had everything and nothing to do with the future of the European Union.

“The referendum was about a change to the Italian constitution – not about Europe,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels on Monday. The Italian premier had staked his political future on the reforms, which would have concentrated legislative powers in the hands of the government. With Renzi’s departure now imminent, a temporary administration is likely to be installed in Rome until elections are held in 2017 or 2018.
“It comes at a very bad time for the EU,” Rosa Balfour, acting director of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) Europe Programme, said.
“It’s a major setback, and it makes things complicated in the short-term,” Balfour said. Though Renzi’s successor will likely be aligned with his Democratic Party – the dominant force in parliament – there are doubts about the interim government’s ability to have much of a say in Brussels among the EU member states. “Whoever represents Italy will of course be a bit of a lame duck,” said Marco Incerti, communications head and research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. A chronic sufferer of political upheavals with high debt and high unemployment, Italy has historically struggled to assert its power in Brussels, and Renzi’s rhetoric during his tenure of less than three years did not always work in favour of that cause.”
Renzi was oscillating between eurosceptics and those who want to make Europe work,” CEPS Director Daniel Gros said. “Leading up to the referendum, Renzi did not refrain from making anti-EU commentary,” the GMF’s Balfour said. “This was tolerated by Germany and France precisely because they recognised the value of Renzi as a stabilising factor in Italy,” Balfour said. But with populist groups making waves and headway in Italy, France, Britain and Germany, is political stability an outdated notion from EU days gone by Eurosceptic populist leaders across Europe had high hopes for Austria, when far-right candidate Norbert Hofer ran against pro-EU Greens candidate Alexander Van der Bellen for the ceremonial post of president.
Hofer lost, but his Freedom Party posted its best-ever national election result of 46.7 per cent support. 
Socialist French President Francois Hollande, driven by the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern French history, has said that he will not stand for a second term in next year’s election. “If Hollande had [decided to] run, the outlook for France would have been more uncertain,” Gros said. The decision means a centre-left candidate has a chance at the presidency, but it also leaves space for a centre- or far-right candidate to fill he void.
Britain, another political powerhouse in Europe, gave a shock to the EU system with the June 23 referendum in favour of leaving the 28-member bloc. Another shock could be in the making, though, as Britain’s Supreme Court opened a hearing last Monday on whether parliamentary approval is needed before Prime Minister Theresa May can begin negotiations on a so-called Brexit.
In the meantime, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has confirmed she will stand for re-election in 2017 amid challenges from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has made notable gains in recent local elections. “With Renzi gone and Hollande lacking legitimacy, this tilts the balance of power towards Germany,” Incerti said. “[Germany] is the stability anchor of the EU,” Gros said. “As long as the fundamental opposition don’t make drastic gains, Germany should remain rather solid, anchored in – and anchoring – the EU,” Gros said.

Published : December 11, 2016

By : Monica Raymunt Deutsche Presse-Agentur Brussels