Catalonia: EPP’s Bad Boys

Adelina Marini

Photos from Catalonia where the Spanish authorities used excessive force against those willing to participate in an illegal referendum in the autonomous Spanish province caused justified reactions of indignation that such a thing is possible in the European Union. Even more revolting was the silence of the European political elite, with the notable exception of Slovenia Prime Minister Miro Cerar (ALDE), Belgium’s Charles Michel (ALDE), the ALDE group leader in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt (Belgium) and the leader of the Socialists and Democrats group Gianni Pittella (Italy). In this company was also Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius. All of them denounced the violence and urged for political dialogue and finding a peaceful solution to the situation. The group of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament demanded the issue to be included on the agenda of the plenary session, which started in Strasbourg on Monday, but by the time this article was finished it had not yet been included (later it was added and will take place on Wednesday afternoon).

The European Commission, whose President Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg) was nominated by the European People’s party, reacted a day later with a special statement which, however, spokesman Margaritis Schinas read out only after he was asked a question by a journalist. The statement is bursting of balance along the seams. In it, it s firmly stated that the developments in Spain are an internal matter which has to be resolved in line with the constitutional order of the country. All participants are called upon to switch urgently to dialogue. “Violence can never be an instrument in politics“, the statement reads, but in the same time the Commission states it fully trusts the Spanish prime minister. “We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish Constitution and of the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein“.

The European People’s Party itself, of which Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party is a member, did not mention a single word on the occasion of the events on Sunday, when more than 800 people were injured. During the clashes against each other stood Spanish policemen and Catalan firefighters. The photos of covered with blood faces of elderly women and men circulated the social networks but even that failed to take the EPP out of their silence. This is another black spot on the image of the largest political family in Europe of a series accumulated by their own “naughty” members and their leaders.

Orban – the Illiberal and anti-European

Most famous among them is Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban, leader of the Fidesz party. His anti-migration policy, full of violence and disrespect for fundamental human rights, for years has been poisoning the atmosphere in the Union in addition to his decision to reject liberal democracy and start building an illiberal regime, including media repressions and the opening of numerous infringement procedures by the European Commission. All this was left unnoticed by the EPP leadership, despite the many debates in the European Parliament and beyond. Patience seemed to be over this year, but not sufficiently, when Orban went too far by sending a public questionnaire to Hungarian citizens asking them whether Brussels is overstepping its powers, titled “Let’s stop Brussels!”.

The EPP then gave its consent the European Commission to use its entire arsenal against Mr Orban in order to bring Hungary back into the democratic flock. However, EPP did not go as far as to call on the Commission to launch the rule of law procedure against Hungary following the example with Poland, which could end with the triggering of Article 7 of the Treaty of the EU which suspends voting rights in the Council. Undisturbed, in the mean time Orban continued with his scandalising actions. He recently launched another campaign, funded with taxpayers’ money, against the globally renown philanthropist of Hungarian origin George Soros. Currently ongoing is another questionnaire asking for or against the “Soros Plan”, which could be awarded the non-existent prize for best conspiracy theory.

The propaganda of the past years, financed with taxpayers’ money, is already delivering. Last week, in a little village in Hungary’s southwest, local citizens rebelled against the plans of a local businessman, supported by the mayor, to accommodate children of refugees in a summer house in the village. The plan was for a vacation of several days of mainly women and children. After learning about it the locals organised an urgent meeting, during which a severe conflict erupted, which led to the mayor resigning after having governed for 11 years.

The owner of the summer house said he was unable to take the floor in the storm of shouts, among which it could be clearly heard that the refugees are not people, that they are animals, terrorists who are coming to blow people up and rape children. Several days later, Prime Minister Viktor Orban supported the rebellious villagers saying that Hungarians have been lied to many timed before, so it is normal local citizens to be worried. In the same time, Hungarian journalists expressed concern that this might lead to a civil war.

The presidency of a captured state

For years, the European public domain has been dominated by the problems with Hungary and Poland, whereas Bulgaria was passing through quite successfully unnoticed, although the anti-democratic and anti-European track record of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his party GERB (an EPP member) is not smaller than that of Viktor Orban’s and is even worse. Borissov is a prime minister for a third time and during his governance not only the situation with the rule of law has not improved but the little progress, achieved before with a lot of pain, was erased too. The European Commission progress reports under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism are eloquent enough and do not save criticism for the lack of adequate measures and political will.

The recent election of members of the Supreme Judicial Council is another vivid example of how many things are not right in the country which will on January 1st take over the Council’s rotating presidency at a time when the EU has finally matured for the conclusion that the rule of law is a

fundamental priority for the Union, as this year’s state of the Union address of President Juncker makes perfectly clear.

Not only there is no progress in the fight against corruption, organised crime and the installation of rule of law, but Boyko Borissov’s party is in bed with xenophobic and pro-Kremlin parties. In Bulgaria can be heard absolutely the same anti-migration propaganda which feeds aggressive moods against refugees, who in Bulgaria are quite a few. The media situation in Bulgaria is not any different than in Serbia, which is at the very beginning of its EU accession process. Regarding relations with Russia, Bulgaria also resembles very much Serbia. The lack of adequate opposition in the Bulgarian parliament and of independent bodies that exert control and demand accountability of the government is speaking volumes, but obviously not loud enough to reach the ears of the EPP. From an image point of view, the Bulgarian presidency will have a negative effect on EU.

EPP’s Bad Boys in the Western Balkans

The actions of Boyko Borissov and Viktor Orban are a childish game compared to the leaders of EPP sister parties in countries in the Western Balkans, Macedonia and Serbia in particular. In Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE has in 10 years made of Macedonia – one of the most prepared candidates in 2005 – a captured state. Under the leadership of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, media freedom and expression were suffocated, institutions were deprived of their independence which led to a severe political crisis that forced EU’s involvement. That EPP member’s thirst for power was so huge that it was ready to risk even an ethnic conflict. Nothing of this, however, persuaded the EPP to stop supporting Nikola Gruevski and his party VMRO-DPMNE, which is still an obstacle on Macedonia’s EU path.

Last year, the EPP welcomed among its members Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic’s party, despite his many sins both in Serbia and in the regional. During the five years rule of the former information minister in Slobodan Milosevic’s government and his party Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) media freedom was suppressed, tabloid wars were launched against his opponents and the little independence institutions had before was undermined. Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbia is tangibly farther from the rule of law and democracy than before. Very dangerous for the stability of the region though are his actions aimed at neighbouring countries and his close cooperation with Russia.

At the moment, Serbia has tense relations with all its neighbours and in the spring there was a serious escalation with Kosovo which scared a lot of people in the region and beyond. The situation is now calmer and there is even optimism that a page has been turned. This sounds too good to be true. In November, it is expected Aleksandar Vucic and his man in the Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, to publish a declaration on the survival of the Serbs. This, however, does not prevent the European Commission and its commissioner for enlargement negotiations Johannes Hahn (Austria, EPP) to open new negotiating chapters.

Catalonia is not Kosovo

Clashes in Catalonia very much reminded the attempts of former Yugoslav republics to leave Yugoslavia, some of which ended with the bloodiest wars in Europe after World War II. Most striking, however, are the similarities between Kosovo and Catalonia as both are territories enjoying solid autonomies, different culture and language (Kosovo has been independent state since 2008). In both provinces the desire for independence was boosted by inadequate policies by the central authority. In fact, precisely because of the analogy with Kosovo Spain is one of the five EU member states that have not yet recognised the independence of the former Serbian province. European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on Monday on this occasion that the difference between Spain and Serbia in this case is that Spain is an EU member.

Of course, putting Mariano Rajoy and his Popular party in the same club with the EPP’s bad boys is not deserved because the violence used on Sunday in Catalonia is incomparable to what Milosevic was doing in Kosovo, neither much common ground can be found between Mr Rajoy’s governance and that of Mr Orban or Mr Borissov. Nevertheless, the use of disproportionate force is absolutely unacceptable in the European Union which has proved itself through the years as the ultimate master of finding compromises and solutions to even the most intricate situations. In the Catalan case, the EPP is not the only party whose image is suffering. Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont is leader of the Catalan European Democratic Party, which is a member of ALDE and is defined as nationalistic and separatist.

But the Liberals are way ahead of the EPP for several reasons. First and foremost, as can be seen in the beginning of this text, the very few European reactions came mainly from Liberals. And if Slovenia did condemn the violence in Catalonia because of its memories of its short war to break up with Yugoslavia, the reaction of Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel is indicative. Belgium is a country which, too, is known for strong separatist moods and the governing coalition is formed with the Flemish nationalists and separatists from the New Flemish Alliance. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament, is a former premier of Belgium and is also very well acquainted with the separatist risks in his homeland.

In a special statement on the occasion of the violence in Catalonia, Guy Verhofstadt said that the only solution is negotiations. He condemned both sides – the separatists (meaning his own) for deciding the organise the referendum despite that it was banned by the Constitutional court, and the government for resorting to disproportionate force.

Macron’s challenge

It may seem that the end is near for the long domination of the European political parties unless they offer a change. The EPP leader in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber (Germany), was among the first to pronounce the end of destructive populism and Euroscepticism after the election in France, won by Emmanuel Macron and his young movement En Marche!, which was only a year old then. Although Mr Macron is quite close to the traditional parties in the EU, he is in fact an anti-systemic player. His movement is not a member of any of the European political families and has no intentions to be. In his powerful European speech last week, he threw the gauntlet to the big parties saying that he would not allow them to hold monopoly over the debate on Europe’s future.

As euinsidewrote, this could have a strong impact on the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, in which the European political parties nominate their own candidates for the presidency of the European Commission. It is thanks to this procedure that Jean-Claude Juncker became president after the EPP again ended up as the most powerful party in the 2014 European elections. In his statements so far, the French president made it abundantly clear that he is completely aware of the frustration of citizens with the political elites. The omnivorousness of the European political parties and their eye-closing for serious sins of sister parties could be nearing the end because Emmanuel Macron showed an ambition for the next elections the European democracy to be significantly enhanced through creating a trans-European list for a certain number of EP seats.

A factor of change could also be the Commission proposal of 13 September this year to amend the regulation on European political parties and foundations. The proposal is a result of the bitter experience with the Eurosceptic and populist parties. The idea is to close all loopholes for abuse with taxpayers’ money, suspending funding of parties which work against the EU. Undoubtedly, with their actions Viktor Orban and Boyko Borissov are in this category. Aleksandar Vucic and Nikola Gruevski too, but as their countries are not EU members the situation there is different when it comes to funding. By 2019, when the next elections for European Parliament will take place, there is less than two years time left, during which the European political families have to reconsider their role in defending the European project, founded on democracy, rule of law and respect for fundamental rights. If they do not do it, they will be wiped out by a Macronian tsunami.

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