Political transformations in the centre

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Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), announced on 2 May during the second Spitzenkandidat debate that his political group will dissolve after the European elections to make way for a new “global pro-European” group. As expected, the new group will be formed together with Emmanuel Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche! (LREM).

Re-building the only centrist group in the EU Parliament will be a tough exercise and will greatly affect Brussels’ political dynamics.

ALDE today

As a kingmaker in the current Parliament, ALDE holds sway with both the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) groups. Unlike the EPP and S&D, however, which have struggled with Eurosceptic forces internally, the liberal group has been able to maintain a firm pro-EU stance throughout the whole term. ALDE’s significance was further cemented by Guy Verhofstadt’s election as a Chief Parliamentary Brexit Coordinator. Another prominent figure within the party’s ranks is Margrethe Vestager, the EU Competition Commissioner, arguably the most notable EU politician throughout the last four years. By investigating the previously “untouchable” tech giants, Vestager demonstrated the EU’s willingness to create a fair and sustainable Digital Single Market. High-profile cases and unheard-of fines against Google and Apple have made her name known as far as Silicon Valley.

ALDE MEPs were also very active in shaping legislation in the European Parliament. Ms Lieve Wierinck (Belgium) was one of the most active MEPs on health issues; Mr Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (the Netherlands) played a prominent role in the revision of the landmark EU policy on the Emission Trading System; Ms Sylvie Goulard (France) was an influential member of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee before becoming Deputy Governor of Bank of France; and Sophia in ’t Veld (the Netherlands) helped lead the Parliament’s work on Rule of Law in EU Member States.

Despite these achievements, and perhaps as a result of lacking a clear distinguishing narrative until now, ALDE has been continuously criticized for collaborating with political parties with compromised reputations to maximise its influence in the European Parliament. A good case in point is the Bulgarian Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a “proud” member of ALDE with an MEP acting as a Vice-Chair for the parliamentary group. The party, representing the Bulgarian Turkish minority, has been being widely criticised by NGOs such as Transparency International and Reporters Without Borders for alleged corruption. Another well-known controversy around ALDE was the announcement a year ago that the Italian populist party Five Star Movement, currently in a coalition government with the right-wing League party, would join the centrist political family.

ALDE’s mixed legacy will have an impact on the success of the new centrist alliance. In March this year, the French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, created controversy by announcing that ALDE had received funding from Monsanto, a US agro-chemicals company which has come under heavy criticism from environmental groups in France. The controversy prompted Emmanuel Macron to rule out a coalition with ALDE under its current format.

Where to now?

Macron’s main challenge will be gaining enough seats in Parliament. The French President and his Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, are perceived as the liberal champions to lead the new centrist family, however, Macron’s LREM is set to obtain a little over 20 seats, while Rutte’s VVD will only bring in 7 MEPs.

Currently the polls show four other parties, already members of ALDE, are expected to win at least 5 seats (Figure 1). Provided that these parties join the new alliance, the question is whether Macron will also bring in the fringe parties from the current ALDE group (like the Bulgarian MRF). Those parties in Figure 1 along with LREM and VVD could make up for 60 seats maximum – still not enough to counter EPP’s estimated 177 seats or S&D’s estimated 135. Therefore, the real trade-off will be between partnering with more of the present ALDE members or keep the new centrist group small, more coherent, free of controversy, but with limited influence.

 

This decision will be crucial since the French President has an ambitious European policy agenda. Even if the new group remains relatively small in terms of MEPs, it can arguably try to extend its power by striking ad-hoc partnerships with S&D or the Greens and by looking to build a consensus around progressive reforms. Apart from that, it can be expected that Marcon and Rutte will contain Guy Verhofstadt’s influence and bet on Margrethe Vestager as the new central figure of the liberal alliance.

Even if the current Competition Commissioner does not become the next President of the Commission, provided that she is given a central role, it is certain that policies such as taxing digital services, achieving fair competition on the Digital Single Market and strengthening anti-trust measures will be high on the agenda throughout the next legislature.