EPP

Romania's centre-left prime minister, Victor Ponta

Just how should the EU react when a leader in a country like Romania threatens to undermine the democratic principles the entire European project stands for? Apparently it depends on what political party the accused underminer hails from.

Last year, when the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban – whose Fidesz party is a member of the EU’s centre-right political grouping, the European People’s Party – rammed through his parliament a controversial media law critics believed granted him overweening powers to mute press critics, the Socialists & Democrats – the EU’s centre-left group – were outraged.

“We cannot allow Hungary or any other government to drive a coach and horses through the fundamental values of the European Union,” insisted German MEP Martin Schultz, then the head of the S&D group in the European parliament.

Now, Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta – whose Social Democratic party is a member of the S&D group – has moved to impeach his political rival, centre-right president Traian Basescu; fired the country’s ombudsman; and curtailed the powers of the constitutional court. How has the S&D responded? 

France's Hollande and Germany's Merkel at the Nato summit in Chicago earlier this week

Ahead of today’s informal EU summit in Brussels, senior officials have been repeatedly warning that no decisions will be taken. Indeed, no communiqué has even been circulated among national delegations, so the dinner is likely to wrap with only a press statement from Herman Van Rompuy, the evening’s host.

Even though Van Rompuy in his letter to leaders has emphasised the informal nature of the session, Europe’s two largest party groupings – the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Party of European Socialists – will both hold pre-summit caucuses starting in the late afternoon.

In the past, the EPP gathering was the more significant affair, with almost every major EU leader (Van Rompuy, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Eurogroup chair Jean-Claude Juncker) and leaders from the largest eurozone countries (France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi) all regular attendees.

At one point, the PES became something of a caucus of the damned, with only Greece’s George Papandreou, Portugal’s José Socrates and Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as centre-left leaders in attendance. Like so much in Europe these days, the French presidential elections have changed all that. 

In today’s paper, my Berlin-based colleagues Quentin Peel and Gerrit Wiesman note that it’s been a bad week for the eurozone’s most high-profile centre-right leaders: Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy both saw their parties trounced in regional elections, and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi was back in court.

But what remains unclear is whether the traditional centre-left can capitalise on the faltering conservatives. If recent evidence is any indication, it’s not a clear-cut trade-off at all. Indeed, in eurozone countries where governments have either recently fallen or are likely to do so soon – Ireland, Portugal and Finland – centre-right parties are ascendant. 

The opening feature of any EU summit is the gathering of heads of government at their partisan caucuses. These days none is more important than the European People’s Party, the right-wing EU coalition that includes Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi.