New European Parliament Tackles Climate Change, Immigration and Threats to Democracy

The European Parliament is more fragmented than ever in its history, which could lead to legislative paralysis.  Shutterstock

The European Parliament is more fragmented than ever in its history, which could lead to legislative paralysis. Shutterstock

The European Union has survived its latest contest between pro-EU and anti-EU forces.

Helped by high turnout, pro-EU centrist and leftist parties together won more than two-thirds of seats in the European Parliament elections held in 28 countries from May 23 to 26. Populist parties intent on destroying the EU from within made only modest gains, increasing their share from 20% to 25% of the 751 seats.

The European Parliament – one of the three institutions involved in passing laws in the European Union – was once a debate society with no real influence. Today, it has a significant role in shaping how EU countries will tackle climate change, threats to democracy, immigration and other matters of great concern to European voters.

The election outcome ensures that populist forces cannot form a blocking minority, which could paralyze the work of the European Parliament.

Despite hobbling populist forces, the result is messy. No single party has a majority of seats, meaning the EU will be governed by a broad coalition – one that will likely have to accommodate left, right and centrist views.

I’m a scholar of European politics. While the European Parliament relies on bargaining between its groups, this is the most fragmented I’ve ever seen it.

It is possible that the necessity of building coalitions among the varied pro-EU parties could foster compromise. But with lots of small parties and divergent opinions vying for influence, legislators may also struggle to make any concrete legislative progress at all.

Climate change

Pre-election polling showed that European voters saw climate change as a major factor in casting their ballot, citing concern over environmental conservation and global warming.

In recent months, student-led school strikes against climate change have spread across Europe.

These environmental concerns contributed to the surge of Green Party representatives, who won 9% of the vote – increasing their parliamentary seats from 52 to 69.

Greens were particularly effective in Western Europe and with younger voters, capturing one-third of all German voters under the age of 30. Their campaign pledges to push for urgent climate action, social justice and civil liberties were less successful in Central and Eastern Europe.

“We will need to see much more serious climate action, a real change of attitude: a price on CO2, properly tackling aviation, the greening of agriculture,” said Bas Eickhout after the election. Eickhout is a leading member of the Greens in the European Parliament.

Pressuring EU countries to meet these environmental goals, however, will not be straightforward.

While 77% of Europeans surveyed in a recent study want to see meaningful action on climate change, European politicians are dividedon the issue.

Germany and Poland have refused to endorse a bold plan to achieve carbon-neutral economies by 2050. That has put them at odds with many of their partners in the EU, such as France, the Netherlands and Sweden.

A sign erected by climate activists outside the European Parliament in Brussels before the European elections, May 26, 2019.  AP Photo/Francisco Seco

A sign erected by climate activists outside the European Parliament in Brussels before the European elections, May 26, 2019. AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Any legislative action on the environment, such as reforming EU agricultural or trade policies, will require agreements between parliamentary groups. The likely coalition of the center-right, liberal, center-left and Green parties would bring together groups with very different environmental records.

That will likely mean more compromise and less ambitious policies.

Rule of law

The members of this fractious likely alliance also hold divergent views on how – and indeed whether – to grapple with the decline of democracy across Europe.

The populist leaders of Hungary and Poland have both undermined the rule of law in recent years, curtailing the independence of key institutions like the press and the judiciary. Both countries have also passed harsh laws that reduce civil liberties, restricting the ability of human rights organizations to operate.

Such laws violate the values of the European Union, a political and economic alliance founded in 1957 with a clear commitment to protect liberal democracy and the rule of law.

But efforts by the EU to sanction Poland and Hungary have hit roadblocks. Populist parties view EU punishment as an infringement on national sovereignty, and even the more centrist European People’s Party also refused for years to censure Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbánbecause he is a member of their group.

In September 2018, European Parliament members eventually voted 448 to 187 to recommend that Hungary’s EU voting rights be suspended – the main tool available to rebuke European countries that violate EU rules.

However, for this severe sanction to take effect, all EU member states except the offending country must vote in favor of the punishment. That’s an impossibly high bar to clear, especially since Poland and Hungary have been protecting each other.

But unless the EU and the European Parliament can find some way to reprimand Hungary and Poland, it could embolden illiberal-leaning Romania and the Czech Republic to follow in their footsteps.

Immigration

Immigration is another controversial topic that the European Parliament will want to act on in the coming years.

The number of undocumented migrants entering Europe has dropped significantly since the 2015 refugee crisis, but pre-election polls showed that many European voters saw immigration as a top campaign issue.

Immigration policy remains a contested issue across Europe. Here, riot police try to stop migrants from crossing Greece’s northern border to journey farther into Europe, April 6, 2019.  Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis

Immigration policy remains a contested issue across Europe. Here, riot police try to stop migrants from crossing Greece’s northern border to journey farther into Europe, April 6, 2019. Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis

After years of discussion about reforming Europe’s shared asylum system, EU member states remain stubbornly divided on this subject.

In both national politics and the European Parliament, centrists and leftists across Europe generally seek to collaborate on a regulated approach to immigration that fairly shares responsibility across the region. But populist parties want closed borders, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has fueled their rise.

Given Europe’s divided new Parliament, finding agreement on how to proceed on this issue will be hard.

Europeans have high expectations of their leaders. Polls show that 68% of Europeans view membership in the EU as beneficial. The high turnout in European Parliament elections and strong showing of pro-EU parties confirm that the contested union is experiencing something of a resurgence.

If the EU’s parliamentarians can forge agreement across the political spectrum, they may foster a renewed, pluralistic defense of European integration that will satisfy voters on immigration and other critical everyday matters.

If paralysis results instead, anti-EU populists may well triumph the next time around.

GARRET MARTIN is a Professorial Lecturer at the American University School of International Service.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION


“Untouchables” Still Struggle for Equality in Indian Society

For centuries, Dalits occupied the lowest rung of Indian society. Flickr user The Philosophy of photography -  https://www.flickr.com/photos/matteo-gianni/109971376/ . CC  BY 2.0.

For centuries, Dalits occupied the lowest rung of Indian society. Flickr user The Philosophy of photography - https://www.flickr.com/photos/matteo-gianni/109971376/. CC  BY 2.0.

With 1.2 billion citizens India is the second most populous country in the world, and while today’s India is governed by a parliamentary system, for more than three millennia, India’s massive population lived under a rigid caste system that forced many Indians into occupational roles with no hope of advancement.  Though modern India has officially done away with castes, the old system’s influence is still felt, particularly among those formerly identified as “untouchables”.

According to Hindu texts, the caste system was brought to India by the creator god Brahma. The top caste was occupied by Brahmins, India’s priests and teachers. Next came Kshatriyas, who were warriors and rulers. Below them, Vaisyas made up the middle class of merchants and traders while Sudras were unskilled workers or peasants. Dalits were “untouchables,” outcasts who existed outside of the caste system entirely and were often relegated to undesirable tasks like street sweeping, toilet cleaning, and disposing of dead animals. A person’s surname identified to which caste they belonged., While one could never hope to ascend to a higher caste in a single lifetime, it was believed that through dedication to one’s Dharma, or caste-specific duty, one could earn a higher position in the next life.

In 1950, the caste system was abolished, creating new opportunities for social mobility and intermingling between India’s various social groups.  India even elected a Dalit president, K.R. Narayanan, who served from 1997 until 2002. Tensions remain, however, as Dalits, still identifiable by their surnames, continually find themselves subject to discrimination, harassment, assaults, and rapes. Many attacks go unreported, and local police tend to show leniency to the attackers.

India’s caste system has been likened to South African apartheid or the Jim Crow laws, both of which required many years of legislation and social pressure to affect changes which could be embraced by the general populace—if they were ever fully embraced at all. As India wrestles with its own history of social stratification, the future of its Dalits remains unclear.  But it is clear that Dalits, who make up a quarter of India’s population, are an integral part of Indian history, culture, and society, and they won’t be leaving any time soon. Greater equality could be vital to India’s overall health as a country.




JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself. 

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