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As World Votes, EU Coalitions Take Shape

As World Votes, EU Coalitions Take Shape

February 2024

When hundreds of farmers on their tractors burned bales of hay, threw eggs and started fires outside a European Union summit in Brussels on Feb. 1, the protests — intentionally or not — pointed to more than complaints that farmers have about specific agricultural policies.

The protesters believe that they are suffering from burdensome environmental restrictions and high taxes as well as unfair competition from cheap agricultural imports. Farmers from eastern Europe “fear that wheat and a lot of other agricultural products entering the market from Ukraine is unfair competition and they would like to get some protectionism for that,” CNN quotes Renaud Foucart, an economics professor at England’s Lancaster University, as saying. Those in western Europe, according to Foucart, say environmental regulations introduced as part of the EU’s Green Deal are too costly.

But the farmers’ feeling of grievance is shared on some level by many Europeans who live and work in cities but are increasingly concerned about their economic well-being, as individuals and families and as nations. This has helped drive the rise in popularity of parties appealing to more nationalist and populist sentiments.

And there is no shortage of parties among the 447 million residents of the 27 countries that make up the European Union. To Americans accustomed to a two-party system and a federal Congress, the operations of the EU, the European Commission and European Parliament, plus the governments of the member countries and such key international institutions as NATO, can be baffling. (That there is talk of enlarging the EU won’t make this any easier.)

‘Web of International Relationships’

“Brussels is not Washington,” as consultant Reimund Simon said during the Council’s Feb. 6 “Public Affairs in the EU” webinar, and “the web of international relationships” that determine policy in the EU can be a challenge to understand. This is especially true in an election year. Simon is managing partner of the Brussels-based firm 365 Sherpas.

The EU elections are in early June, and more than 60 countries will stage national elections in 2024, which, according to The Washington Post, means “roughly half the planet could go to the polls in what could be the greatest rolling spectacle of democracy in human history.” Besides selecting leaders of their own governments, Europeans will be electing members to represent them in the European Parliament. The coming months, Geopolitical Monitor reports, will most likely see “a new composition of the European Parliament; a significant change among the existing EU Commissioners; the possibility of a new Commission President; and undoubtedly a new President of the European Council.”

Once the returns are in and the new European Parliament is seated, then the negotiations begin — negotiations over process, rather than policy. That will come later. “The way things are done in Brussels is through coalitions, consensus and negotiation,” explains João Sousa, managing director of the Public Affairs Council’s European Office. “No party has the power to dictate to the others, so much of the energy once the elections have been held will be devoted to establishing the relationships between the different parties — the coalitions upon which getting anything of substance accomplished will depend.”

Rise of ‘Euroskeptics’

This will be complicated by the fact that the chairmanships of many relevant institutions “will likely change and by the fact that there will be a lot of new members of the European Parliament,” Sousa says. “This will include some members who are ‘euroskeptics,’ who are skeptical of the EU itself. These parties — those who tend to be nationalist and populist — seem to be gaining in strength, some of which are actually against the idea of the EU altogether, believing it has too much power.”

The farmers’ protest is an especially vivid demonstration of this nationalist and populist sentiment, which cannot be conveniently relegated to the right or left. “These are constituencies that — much like some in the U.S. today — feel that they are not being heard,” says Marcel Halma, former diplomat and now senior vice president, communications and public affairs, at Solvay, a multinational chemical company based in Brussels.

“But they are not alone in their desire to protect what they have in a world that is changing very rapidly,” Halma says. “They have seen the U.S. move toward greater self-sufficiency in energy, for example, and in terms of innovation, while China and the Asian region generally have pushed far beyond what they were 20 years ago, in terms of economic power on the world stage.” While Europe continues to further its movement toward greater sustainability and global free trade, these dissenting voices, protecting what they have, and what Americans might call “protectionism,” are gaining in support. “How these different groups of interest develop working relationships in the Parliament remains to be seen,” Halma says.

Lame Ducks Until November

Halma says this year will be “a time of transition, and public affairs professionals need to be vigilant and invest in influencing the shaping of the new policy agenda. In the U.S., Congress initiates legislation, but in Brussels, the European Commission — the EU’s executive — presents its legislative agenda. Because the current administration will be a lame duck from April through November, we cannot reasonably expect any major policy initiatives, when coalitions and working relationships are being established.”

For the foreseeable future, Sousa says, “the action will involve who the new leaders will be, because there will certainly be new leaders and — if the polls are correct — a more fragmented European Parliament, as the more nationalist, populist and ‘euroskeptic’ parties will gain power. Even so, they are unlikely to be the strongest group, as center-right and center-left parties will still have the edge. Of course, we will also need to be watching what happens in the European capitals because what happens in Brussels reflects what is happening in the European capitals.”

Consensus, Not Confrontation

The great irony of the farmers’ protests is that they exemplify a style of political action that in the long run does not prove effective in Brussels. Confrontation rarely if ever works, and the more extreme parties with nationalist agendas are not good at compromise and consensus building, so the coalitions they enter into “might prove fragile and break apart,” Sousa says. “In Brussels, negotiation is the coin of the realm.” Groups that come with an all-or-nothing agenda — with an inflexible stance that might have a certain propaganda value in political Washington and score points with aggrieved constituencies — tend not to succeed in Brussels. “So, you must shape your message and your advocacy efforts accordingly,” according to Sousa.

And just because few policies of genuine consequence can be expected for much of 2024 is no reason for public affairs professionals to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. “Of course, you need to be monitoring these developments closely,” Sousa says. “You have to be learning everything you can about what the new leadership and the emerging coalitions look like — and who you can be working with” when it does come time for policy to be shaped.

“This is the time to influence the next five years of policy under the new leadership, by establishing your own relationships with the emerging coalitions,” Halma says. “Now is your opportunity to act. Don’t wait until the cooking is being done to try to influence the menu.”

While Europe continues to further its movement toward greater sustainability and global free trade, these dissenting voices, protecting what they have, and what Americans might call ‘protectionism,’ are gaining in support.

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