By Hubert Tadych
The May elections resulted for the EPP in the loss of 35 seats in the European Parliament. The political family gained 24.23% of votes compared to 29.43% in 2014. Despite EPP remains the biggest political powerhouse in Brussels, it became a minority within a pro-EU majority that will include the Socialists, the Liberals and the Greens. The loss of 5 percentage points in 5 years may appear to be the beginning of a decline as member parties see the decrease of the support back in their countries. This was reflected in the formation of the von der Leyen’s team for the new Commission, where EPP will have only about half of the posts it held in 2014. Tensions within the family are stronger than ever. At the same time, the trust in the European Union is higher than any time in the last 25 years, and Greens, Liberals as well as national populists are on a rising tide. So, what is behind the EPP problems?
Lack of Credibility
Becoming the dominant force in Brussels over the years helped EPP on the long-term firstly in overcoming social democrats in the European Parliament and secondly, in influencing nominations of the Commission and the European Council. A long-lasting pursuit towards being bigger and stronger resulted in enlarging the political family and in the establishment of a strong political mainstream. To maintain domination, the EPP has over the years accepted into its ranks parties of different political views. In 2019, the different views and political traditions present in the EPP are now an almost constant cause of concern, putting into question the cohesiveness and homogeneity of the party. Some could go as far to argue that the EPP is slowly moving away from some of its very founding ideals. The congress will need to provide a clear direction for the EPP, revive its Christian democrat tradition, understand where it wants to go when it comes to economy, labour civil rights and foreign policy. The EPP still calls itself “centre-right” and is described by others as “conservative“, but both terms might have become questionable. It is maybe time for EPP to ask itself if Kohl’s “You could have the best program, but if you did not have the numbers, there was little you could do” led the party to a dead end. Ultimately, rewards that come from being the biggest beast in the EU jungle might, in the long term, prove to be less important than values that stay as the essence of a political project.
More to that, EPP needs to resolve not only a case with Fidesz, but a broader – and probably more important than any interior quarrel – ideological contradiction between different views in the party. Reality is, the growing divergence in the political narrative of different members is making every day more difficult for the EPP to put forward coherent and credible proposals, ultimately damaging its image and consensus among EU citizens.
Lost in Campaigning
Let’s take the bull by the horns, this lack of coherent proposals left somehow the feeling that the EPP European campaign for May’s 2019 elections had no clear direction. Member’s contradictory values and divergent interests in different EU states made it impossible to address voters with a consistent message. Christian democrats across Europe, depending on local conditions, were bidding for social promises with social democratic opponents or trying to be as keen on the rejuvenation of the EU as Liberals, as climate aware as Greens, and even as nationalistic as the far-right. The EPP could have but did not impose a public debate on leading themes that would have been universal for the entire continent and Weber’s performance in the campaign was just not strong enough to get any other lead topics into the hearth and mind of voters. Cherry on top, the EPP campaign perfectly omitted youth-related issues such as opportunities in the labour market, youth unemployment or housing. Based on imaginary bon-mots, the campaign did not raise any real problem, and thus had no target audience. Fading final stage of the campaign made bored young people turn their backs on the EPP and focus on more engaged campaigners.
Change the EPP as the World is Changing
Arguably, the real winners in 2019 European Elections are Ecological liberals and populists who want to preserve their way of life. EPP stays on the crossroad between them. And that is why the potential threat to the EPP lies not only at the far-right but also left of the centre. The drop in electoral support registered by the Social democrats has opened up a space now occupied by Green parties, which are growing around Europe, moving their political agenda towards the centre and increased their presence in Brussels of about 47 per cent. And without the immigration issues setting tongues wagging anymore, this is the Green’s leading topic: climate change. An issue that has vaulted to the top of voters’ concerns in a Europe.
However, as Churchill would say, “an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. As the European Climate Foundation’s studies show more than three-quarters of Europeans want politicians to prioritise the climate crisis, the EPP might take this chance to meet the expectations of present-day voters and find a way to balance environmental interests with the protection of workplaces. Climate policy appears now to be a battleground shared between the democratic centre and right-wing populists. The EPP should aim at reversing this trend and trying to intercept the expectations of present-day voters and taking the climate emergency as the defining issue of our times. After all, the EU is very much in need of a convincing EPP perspective on the topic and this could be a way to turn “difficulties” into “opportunities”. Cutting jobs among the most unionized polluting industries, like cars and coal, cannot be the solely political answer to this problem. There is in fact a necessity to balance environmental interests with the protection of workplaces in the spirit of Christian democracy. What is more is that, this could also be a good start in the direction of targeting young voters more, especially considering that youth electorate no longer regard climate and environmental protection as a necessary evil, but as a natural component of the political agenda.
Another important step in bridging the gap between the party and the youth electorate, would be to acknowledge that the continent is facing a new economic crisis, which is impacting the harder on young people. In a time when, youth unemployment is exceeding 30% in EU Mediterranean countries, EPP usual push for strengthening the single EU market and facilitation of small and medium enterprises development, is just not enough to solve the problems of young employees. Even a tripled Erasmus+ will not feed a family. A more tailored approach is needed in constructing a serious political agenda that can be brought to the attention of young people.
Hunting on the New Leadership
To navigate these perilous waters, EPP needs a leadership who knows where the party comes from and has a good idea of where it should go. A leadership who can rise above national interests and build a shared, coherent and therefore credible vision of the party. A leadership who would enforce moral standards with a tough hand and regain credibility. A leadership ready to implement an agenda for the future, without looking away from the demands of modernity. And finally, a leadership that, just as Joseph Daul did, will be able to take care of the unity of the party while at the same time giving it more visibility.
All in all, not an easy task. But as we said: “an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”, and we are a party of optimists and we should do everything possible to remain so and to bring optimism back to the European people too.