This Week in Europe: Kick-off of European election race, Armistice centenary and more

, by Radu Dumitrescu

This Week in Europe: Kick-off of European election race, Armistice centenary and more
Image by Samuel Mork Bednarz.

Members of the TNF team recount big events from Europe from the past week, and point attention to news that may have passed notice. What did we miss? Comment on our Facebook page at http://facebook.com/thenewfederalist.eu !

Manfred Weber becomes EPP’s Spitzenkandidat

On Thursday, the European People’s Party held its congress in Helsinki and elected Manfred Weber as the lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat, to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. The largest party in the EU parliament won 80% of the delegates’ votes, as opposed to the 20% of former Finnish PM Alexander Stubb. Weber benefitted from Angela Merkel’s endorsement, but he may still find it difficult to gather support in the European Council, as the Spitzenkandidat process is not formally part of the European elections - even if the EPP win most of the votes, Weber may or may not become president of the Commission, as the Council will have to approve one of the lead candidates from the European political parties while taking into account the result of the elections. For one, French president Emmanuel Macron is thought to favor chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier instead of the German Weber.

Timmermans to be PES Common Candidate

On Monday, the Social Democrats in the European parliament announced that Commission VP Frans Timmermans will be their lead candidate in next year’s EU elections. Timmermans won as his rival, also Commission VP, Maros Sefcovic, withdrew and backed him, writing to PES President Sergei Stanishev that Timmermans will “lead our party family into the 2019 European Parliament elections.” Sefcovic announced that he stands ready to work side by side with Timmermans in good team spirit. PES held an open process for nominalizing its Spitzenkandidat, a process different from that of the center-right EPP. Timmermans now enjoys the full backing of the party as the common party candidate, who will be officially recognized at the congress in Lisbon next month. Nevertheless, projections for the elections show that post-Brexit PES will still remain the second largest force in the Parliament.

Romania tries to use GDPR to silence critical journalists

Journalists from Romania’s Rise Project have been looking into the abuse of EU funds in the country and other frauds perpetrated by top politicians connected to the firm TelDrum SA. On Thursday, they were ordered to reveal their sources or face a massive fine, a threat backed up by the EU general data protection regulation, or GDPR. Now under fire from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, or OCCRP, the Romanian government argued that the source - from where the personal data published on Facebook by the journalists - has to be revealed within 10 days. However, GDPR has a built-in exception for journalists, article 85 of the GDPR stating that EU states need to “provide for exemptions or derogations” when such data is processed “for journalistic purposes”. Liviu Dragnea, president of the ruling Social Democrats, is allegedly the one connected to the shady company, although he denies any connection.

Macron calls for European Army

On Tuesday, French president Emmanuel Macron called for the making of a “real European army” that would allow the Union to face challenges posed by China, Russia and even the United States. Macron has pushed for joint military efforts for the EU ever since he was elected, arguing that dependence on American military power is a mistake, especially since Donald Trump was elected president. “We will not protect Europeans unless we decide to have a true European army,” said Macron. The EU has already taken some steps toward this goal, with 9 countries signing a treaty independent from NATO which establishes a rapid joint military union that can evacuate civilians or provide aid after a natural disaster. Moreover, the Union is set to expand its defence budget with €13 billion starting in 2021.

Hungary drops probe into Orban, OLAF continues it

OLAF, the European Union’s anti-fraud agency, told POLITICO that they will be continuing investigations into 35 lighting projects implemented by Viktor Orban’s son in law, Istvan Tiborcz, with EU Cohesion funds, despite an announcement from the Hungarian police earlier in the week stating that they found no evidence of a crime. The OLAF spokesman reminded of serious irregularities and also evidence of conflict of interest, arguing that the absence of a criminal case on the national level “does not invalidate OLAF’s findings.” Tiborcz, owner of the company under investigation, Elios, is one of Hungary’s most successful businessmen, with some questioning whether his ties to the PM granted him access to EU and state funds. Criticism also came from the Commission and the Parliament’s budgetary control committee, both scolding Hungary for dropping the investigation and questioning the independence of Hungarian law enforcement authorities.

Corbyn declares that Brexit cannot be stopped

In an interview with Der Spiegel, UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that Brexit could not be stopped and that the UK government could only understand why people had voted to leave the EU. He set out Labour’s preference of a customs union with the EU as a way of preserving industry supply chains and keeping the border in Ireland open. The comments come amid heightened talk that the UK could reverse its Brexit decision in a second referendum, following a large poll of 20,000 people for Channel 4 which showed that Brits would prefer to stay in the EU by 54% to 46%.

France European Parliament poll shows Le Pen on the rise

A recent poll has confirmed a trend that has brought the parties of Le Pen and Macron neck and neck. In asking about voting intention for the European Parliament, a recent poll in France found that Le Pen’s Rassemblement National had climbed to 21% while En Marche was down to 19%. The upcoming 2019 European Elections are expected to be a fierce contest between pro- and anti-EU groups and France will likely play a central role in that rivalry.

Mixed views on new Italian in ECB

Though national governments are normally happy when their nationals get top posts within the EU, Italy’s populists are not so enthusiastic about the appointment of an Italian as head of the European Central Bank’s supervisory arm. Andrea Erin, who has extensive experience, narrowly beat out Irish candidate Sharon Donnery, yet the Italian government considers Erin too hawkish on economic policy to suit their interests. Italy has had long-standing representation at the top of European monetary policy thanks to Mario Draghi’s position as European Central Bank President and Erin’s new appointment means this will continue. Nonetheless, the current government in Italy does not consider Erin an ally and distrusts his independence from Italian politics. Erin was supported in his appointment by Spain, Portugal, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, as well as top ECB officials like Benoît Cœuré, Peter Praet, and Draghi.

Allies gather for WWI centenary

The leaders of France, Germany, the UK, the US and Canada have come together in France over the weekend to mark the one hundred year anniversary of the end of the First World War. Of particular note was President Macron and Chancellor Merkel going to the site in Northern France where the Armistice was originally signed and recreating that moment in a replica of the railway carriage that was used at the time. Less dignified was the decision by Donald Trump to cancel his visit to one of two American cemeteries in France, claiming bad weather as the reason. This attracted much derision and criticism on social media and was condemned for its lack of respect for the importance of the event.

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