Beppe Grillo arrives at a polling station near Genoa during last week's election
The only more interesting political spectator sport in Brussels these days other than the fight over the next European Commission president is the battle between the three euroceptic political groups in the European Parliament to secure allies from the sudden surge of anti-EU and anti-establishment parties that are coming to town.
On Tuesday, two of the most prominent potential kingmakers arrived in Brussels on the same plane: Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian turned political insurgent who heads the Five Star Movement and its 17 newly-minted MEPs, and Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian separatist Northern League, who arrived with 5 seats.
Both were being courted by the two new big eurosceptics on the block: Nigel Farage, the bombastic head of the UK Independence party, and Marine Le Pen, his counterpart for France’s Front National, who both are trying to form their own seven-country party groupings going into the new session.
David Cameron and his wife Samantha after voting in last week's EU parliament elections
David Cameron’s anti-federalist group in the European parliament entered these elections looking a bit shaky. While anti-establishment parties were faring well, the polls for the ECR group were worrying. Cameron took a huge gamble when leaving the centre-right European People’s Party to form a eurosceptic bloc. Some ECR folk feared the group could unravel in the wake of the election.
Daniel Hannan, one of the ECR’s best known MEPs, dismissed the doom laden predictions from “half-clever commentators” (this correspondent included). He was correct; the speculation proved only half-right. The ECR have emerged in a solid position from the vote. It survived and its feathers are well preened for a beauty contest for the leadership of Europe’s eurosceptics. But the dynamics of the group are changing — and it poses some serious political dilemmas for Cameron.
1) The ECR is here to stay….
If it makes no new allies and loses no group members, the ECR will live on. The election results show it has cleared the rather arbitrary seven country official threshold to form a group (there are MEPs from at least 8 member states). At present though, their numbers are down. The ECR is projected to reach 45, a loss of 11 seats. The Tories and the Czech members both suffered at the hands of the electorate.
2) ….with reduced Tory influence
Perhaps as significant is the changing balance of power within the party.
Juncker, left, with Schulz ahead of a debate in Hamburg, Germany earlier this week
With voting now underway in Britain and the Netherlands, the first two EU members to go to the polls in the three-day continent-wide election to pick the new European Parliament, Brussels’ favourite parlour game – guessing who will emerge as the next president of the European Commission – has shifted into high gear.
As with almost everything in the EU, from the eurozone crisis to Russian sanctions, all eyes are on Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and whether she will throw her backing to one of the two “spitzenkandidaten” – the lead candidates for the largest political groupings – or decide to back someone else for the job.
“Nobody knows,” says a top political operative from a German-allied country. “Everybody has their opinions and views, but nobody really knows.”
To play our part in the echo chamber, Brussels Blog has compiled its own completely unscientific odds on where the main candidates stand. And as they say in US sports betting, these odds are for entertainment purposes only. The Brussels Blog does not advocate gambling (though you can do so at the UK’s gaming company Ladbrokes).
After months of speculation, official confirmation finally came on Friday that Ramon Fernandez, one of the central players in Brussels on the French side throughout eurozone crisis negotiations, will step down as head of the French Treasury at the end of June.
He will be replaced by Bruno Bézard, 51, currently director general of public finances at the finance ministry and a figure firmly in the tradition of French haut functionnaires: a graduate of both Ena and L’Ecole Polytechnique, the elite graduate schools, he was an economic adviser to former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and has headed the APE, the agency that holds most of the state’s big company shareholdings.
Fernandez, 46, an amiable figure who combines formidable technical skills with an impish sense of humour, found himself in an uncomfortable position after the election in 2012 of President François Hollande. Firmly identified with the centre-right, Fernandez was appointed in 2009 by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and was regarded with deep suspicion by many on the socialist left, notably the voluble Arnaud Montebourg, now economy and industry minister. The directeur du Trésor is a powerful position as the senior civil servant in the finance ministry empire.