The Grand Coalition Lives on in Brussels

The European Parliament elects anti-abortion MEP Roberta Metsola as president.

Two decades after the European Parliament had its last woman as a president, Roberta Metsola (EPP, Malta) has been elected to the position with an absolute majority of 458 votes in the first round. Metsola’s two predecessors (Simone Veil and Nicole Fontaine) were also right-wing but had a history of contradicting their parties’ lines to defend women’s rights. This time, nevertheless, we have a President who has repeatedly expressed a clear opposition to ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights. But not only that, despite presenting herself as a progressive member of the European People’s Party, Metsola has positioned herself to the right wing of her group on several important issues, including the patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines.

But how did we get to this point? The agreement between social democrats, liberals and the EPP signed at the beginning of the mandate clearly establishes a much more conservative balance of forces in the EU’s institutions than voters chose. Conservatives now control the majority of relevant positions in the European Parliament, as well as the presidency of the Commission, and the liberals have the presidency of the Council. Despite its poor electoral performance in recent elections, the EPP’s power in Brussels continues to be untouchable through the Grand Coalition system. But this time the limits of the traditional European Grand Coalition have been passed, and the far right was included in the deal. The ECR group had its own candidate to the presidency of the EP, a representative of the Polish PiS party, which they withdrew in the last minute to support Metsola in exchange of a vice-presidency that they didn’t have during the first half of the mandate.

The message that social democrats are sending with this agreement is very clear: women’s rights are negotiable. What they are saying is that of course they can continue to agree with other groups on very well written texts (most of them with no legislative consequences, of course) on the rights of women, LGBTI+ persons or migrants, but when it comes to important decisions, they prefer to reach agreements with the right – or even with the extreme right as they have now done. During the first half of the present mandate, the Left has shown that it is possible to build progressive majorities on several important issues, such as condemning the authoritarian moves in certain EU Member States, the transparency regarding the Commission’s vaccine contracts, or the need for a large public investment plan after the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the social democrats still prefers to insert itself in the Grand Coalition paradigm when it comes to the main institutional decision. A different majority has proven to be possible, but they have not shown political will to explore this new scenario.

Another important issue which this election highlights is the way that the far rights is approaching the mainstream, and traditional conservatives and liberals are becoming impregnated with their ideas. Agreements between the right and the far right are not only common in countries such as Spain, but the increasing ideological proximity is clear. Battles we believed we had won on issues such as civil rights are being re-opened by the far right and many conservatives as well as liberals are positioning themselves on their side. What the social democrats seem not to have realized is the way in which their choice of allies jeopardizes any progressive agreement which may be reached. As one of the president’s main tasks is to defend the Parliament’s position – what credibility will it have to continue to criticise violations of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary when Metsola has a majority based on the votes of Fidesz and PiS?

As we know, the Grand Coalition has been responsible in the last decades of policies of austerity and cuts in public services which have had dramatic consequences for the peoples of Europe – but also of other policies which are responsible for attacks on rights, such as “Fortress Europe”. The election of the presidency of the European Parliament through a new version of this old paradigm, including the far right, shows to what an extent it is a failed model. A new alliance to respond to the peoples’ needs is urgently needed. It is now the responsibility of The Left to keep a firm position regarding any possible regression in the positions we have contributed to reach and show that things can be done differently.