Time in Yerevan: 11:07,   24 April 2024

Interview with CEPS Senior Research Fellow on upcoming European Parliament elections

Interview with CEPS Senior Research Fellow on upcoming European Parliament elections

BRUSSELS, JANUARY 16, ARMENPRESS. European Council President Charles Michel has announced his plan to resign early so that he can run for a seat in the European Parliament in June.

Armenpress Brussels correspondent spoke to Steven Blockmans, Senior Research Fellow at CEPS, a Brussels-based leading independent think tank on European policies on Michel’s decision and what it could mean for the EU organizations, as well as its possible impact on the Armenian-Azeri talks.

Blockmans was previously Director of Research at CEPS, the Centre for European Policy Studies.

ARMENPRESS: Europe’s politics has changed radically over the past decade, shifting more to the right. What are your predictions for upcoming elections in 2024?

Blockmans: My expectations for 2024 European Elections are essentially a further shift towards center right and right-wing spectrum, both at national and at European Union levels. We note that several member states have elections coming up. Belgium has on the same day that the European parliamentary elections are scheduled. More importantly, perhaps Austria a bit further in the autumn. Those are two examples of a couple where right-wing parties, two extreme right-wing parties will become the biggest and therefore are in core position as far as the formation of coalition governments is concerned. To what extent at national levels they will be able to wield, you know, on their newly found power to execute nationalist separatist agenda, remains to be seen in Belgium. This is rather couched in Austria. This might go further on the anti-immigration agenda, and more on the pro-Russian agenda points as well so. At the European Union level, I expect less of a change in the political direction that the European Parliament has charted over the last couple of years, simply because there you have an amalgamation of 27 member states’ electorates choosing those political preferences where, ultimately, the stability of the big power blocks has shown quite resilient over the last decades. There may be a further erosion of those big power blocks, in particular, you know the Christian Democratic or the Social Democratic power block to the benefit of other parties. More on the right wing, or indeed in the Liberal Democratic front. But overall, all these changes will be couched and stabilized. 

It seems that the far-right popularity is high in all over Europe. Is this claim of a far-right triumph exaggerated or not? If so, what would be consequences?

Well, I'm with those in the school of thought that still believe in the, you know, in the democratic resilience, the resistance, in a way of the structures that have been put in place, in our democratic system, so as to withstand, you know, the separatists or the autocratic forces. That that may be on display rhetorically among some political party leaders in different member states, or indeed at the European Parliament. But where of course, you know, the examples of certain member states that have travelled in that direction, Hungary and Poland in particular, will serve as harbingers, you know, to guard, you know, further drift in that direction, of course. If more member states lean towards that side of the political spectrum, this will be to the benefit of a coalition of member states that are led by those where Victor Orban now is the Dean, the political Dean, as the Prime Minister serving the longest term. At the member state level represented in the European Council that body of views and political actions will become bigger and weightier, that is obvious, and so at the European level there will be a shift in that direction, I think, which makes it more difficult to negotiate issues like EU relations with Russia or immigration distribution of funds, etcetera. 

Because you mentioned the Hungary question, not directed and linked to Hungary as well as we know recently the European Council president announced that he will run in the EP elections, which means he will not be Council President. And that job will be given to Hungary, because the rotating Presidency will pass to Hungary. What does Charles Michel's decision mean for him and for Europe? What developments may happen, having regard that this very important position will be maintained by Hungary? 

I think the decision by Charles Michel to give up early the European Council Presidency in favor of running for a seat in the European Parliament is very self-centered. Europe and the European Union face considerable strategic challenges and experienced hand that coordinates positions between the 27 Member States is absolutely key and cannot be entrusted blindly to the Council Presidency. That will be that. That happens on a rotating basis and will be chaired by Hungary and Victor Orban, therefore, in the second-half of 2024. I think it shows the level of loyalty by Michel, which some observers would have wished was higher. And so yeah, a bit of an egocentric decision there which automatically means that Victor Orban will assume the Presidency as a caretaker. There remains to be seen because of course there might be a different caretaker put in place with common accord. And certain names have already been floated. In that respect, no less those of Mario Draghi and others who might take on that caretaking role until the moment where, of course, all positions on the top jobs, including that of the European Commission President and the European Parliament President have been decided, which is a decision that cannot be precipitated. I also think that it’s difficult to predict when one doesn't know exactly know what the outcome of the European parliamentary elections will be, so time is very short in that sense, between the early June date for the European parliamentary elections and the departure of Charles Michel somewhere in mid-July to broker that compromise. 

How can this decision affect Armenian-Azerbaijani relations? To what extent is the format of tripartite meetings endangered? Will there be changes in the position of the EU Council or the EU in general?

Well, personally I never lent a lot of credence to the role of Charles Michel in those tripartite negotiations. We've seen those negotiations, of course, take on different channels, being facilitated also by the US, and of course, by Russia. We see, the bilateral talks that are now happening. So, one should not inflate the importance of the European Union and of European Council President Charles Michel as a person un those talks and therefore, you know, the prolongation of that. If Charles Michel steps down as European Council President I would rather believe that, you know, the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have moved to such a level already that, you know, the terms of a peace agreement are in writing. 

Coming back to European elections. Europe faces many crises and with the war in Ukraine it was obvious that there is a need of common threat perception. As always voters generally will care more about bread and butter issues such as inflation. According to you, what are the main issues that the leaders should include in their electoral agenda? What does Europe need?

Unfortunately, I have to agree with the premise in your question, which suggests that bread and butter issues will prevail in national and indeed in the European parliamentary elections, not necessarily the bigger geostrategic issues. Foreign policy is not really a vote winner in that respect, even at the European level and so what I would like to see, of course, is more emphasis on these geostrategic matters and discussion around them in the campaigns or indeed in the grilling of the European Commission designates, you know, by the European Parliament so as to make everyone aware of the acute danger that Russia still poses. We will see in 2024, Ukraine having to adopt a very defensive posture as a result of the lack of munitions and weaponry that it really needs in order to break through the contact lines with a successful offensive, which it was unable to do in 2023. Now, if the contact line moves further West in a way in Ukraine, Russia will feel emboldened and maybe even capable with the support of the North Koreans, the Chinese, the Iranians, etcetera. Would take it even further into, you know, provide pinpricks and destabilize other parts of Europe, whether that's in the European Union’s neighborhood or whether that is at their homes, you know, these far right wing parties and some of these politicians have notorious links with the Kremlin that go very far and there are of course groups that can be mobilized without one having to project.

Due to last year’s developments in international affairs, many experts argue that the EU is not a global independent player. What is your take on this?

Well, the European Union itself is primarily driven by external shocks. The internal machinery as a result of the political dissonance that exist between member states is grinding itself to a halt and we see that with the Hungarian vetoes also on internal policy and so the foreign policy posture of the European Union is dependent on what happens elsewhere in the world and a common threat perception internally. I think it will be strengthened as a result of increased crises on the European Union's borders, will change in the dynamics, you know, to the detriment of Kiev is 1, but of course also because of the outcome of the US elections at the end of this year with a potential advance again of a Trump 2.0, who threatens to immobilize NATO, even if legally he can no longer withdraw the US from the organization. But it is those types of shocks in a way that have catapulted, you know, reform processes and progress in the European integration process. Also, in terms of foreign policy and defense posture, not nearly enough as probably should be needed in the short term, but at least I believe that gradually, in increments, the European Union is finding that autonomy, that strategic autonomy that it seeks. 

Yes, because in the EU, aspects such as security, defense and strategic outlook remain weak. Is this perception true and if so, where do you see the reasons for this?

Well, the reasons for that are multifold. They rest on differences in threat perception, which is very different, You know, from Estonia in the Baltic States to Portugal in the southwest of the European continent, it rests on political influence, of course, in the European Union, which is one of the international organizations in which you know military and defense and foreign policy issues are through which they are channeled. And of course, a jealousy to protect sovereignty in areas where governments of member states can still define their own course in line with their own geopolitical trajectories and historical legacies. So, there are many breaking points in that respect that have to be somehow overcome and cobbled together into a more jointly organized and integrated foreign and security policy, and that takes time and it's obvious. 

Talking about these differences and different perceptions of the member states which by itself cause problems, what is your assessment concerning the enlargement policies of the EU? The European Council decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine. It is one of nine current EU candidate countries, together with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey. Ukraine does not actually meet the candidacy conditions neither does Georgia, how would you explain this enlargement policy?

Well, enlargement is basically the escape valve for the European Union to project its political preferences in a wider Europe and in a way a replacement for those aspects of foreign and security policy which do not work, defense security in the sharper sense of the word and so enlargement is what the European Union knows how to do best, perhaps in a foreign policy context. And so, yeah, kind of fall back policy to rely on which nevertheless pitches the future external borders of the European Union in a rather robust sense. I mean moving up further to Russia, essentially claiming a sphere of influence. Now it's obvious that with the President of Cyprus, which joined the European Union as a divided island, whereby the north is still occupied by Turkish armed forces and where the European Union and its laws do not apply, that legal friction will not be replicated in the future. Current member states are simply unwilling to still integrate countries that have territorial disputes and so, yes, granting candidate country status is a symbolic gesture of geopolitical importance, of course, which lends support to the Ukrainian armed forces in their existential fight, gives a prospect to the Moldovan government and population, and to the Georgians, indeed, that the political direction that is in the interest of the European Union is one that is shared with the populations of the majority of the populations of those countries. And so it’s incredibly important, but at the same time, it's absolutely clear that neither of the two parties, the candidate countries, as well as the EU, are in a position to deliver on full integration anytime soon. And so, you see alternative methods being developed now of partial and accelerated integration into certain areas, into certain bodies of the EU, in anticipation of full membership and which will come much later, certainly not within the two years that certain Ukrainian politicians continue to announce to their own electorates. 




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