Europe’s biggest parties offer a choice ‘between Coke Light and Coke Zero,’ says ECR candidate.
Jan Zahradil, a conservative Czech member of the European Parliament, launched his campaign for European Commission president Wednesday by promising a “scaled-back, flexible and decentralized” EU if he wins.
As the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) candidate, Zahradil has little chance of winning, but he told POLITICO he views the leading candidates — Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party and Frans Timmermans of the Socialists — as “a choice between Coke Light and Coke Zero.”
Instead he called for a “multi-currency EU and more powers for national parliaments,” and a bigger focus on free trade. “We should sign at least 10 similar agreements to EU-Japan by 2024,” Zahradil said.
The campaign launch was unusual by Brussels standards, taking place in a bar festooned with chandeliers and metallic wallpaper featuring images of peacocks, with a performance by a blues band called Exiled In Brussels, with vocals by the ECR’s leader in the European Parliament, Syed Kamall.
“I’ve been in the EU business for 20 years and people always talk about the EU being at a crossroads. Today we really are at a crossroads, because there will be no EPP and Socialist majority in Parliament after the next election,” Zahradil said.
The Czech MEP said he aimed to give the ECR a “new Parliament majority” after the 2019 election.
A major obstacle to Zahradil’s plans will be the loss of the ECR’s biggest national delegation — 18 U.K. Conservatives — as a result of Brexit.
Zahradil said he believes “they can be replaced by our current member parties” but opinion polls suggest that’s unlikely.
POLITICO’s Poll of Polls puts the ECR group on track to win 48 seats out of 705 in the new Parliament, making them just the sixth largest group. The ECR hasn’t polled above 54 seats in 2018.
The group’s outlook would change if it were to recruit a large party dissatisfied with its current arrangements. The biggest prizes would be Italy’s League (part of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group) or 5Star Movement (part of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group), or Hungary’s Fidesz, which is a member of the EPP. Fidesz is on track to with 14 seats, and the Italian parties between 24 and 30 seats each.
“The are some negotiations underway” on new recruits, Zahradil told POLITICO, but he refused to give details about who he was talking to.
“I have serious doubts that 5Stars would be willing or able to join the group: probably they do not share our economic policies,” he said. When it comes to the League, “we are open to communication” but “I don’t really know what their plans are. So far I understood Mr [Matteo] Salvini wants to be a big player himself. He wants to surround himself with some parties and then join a bigger group,” Zahradil said.
If the ECR aligned with the European People’s Party, the liberal ALDE group and Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement, the four parties could come close to scraping together a thin majority (see POLITICO’s Parliament coalition-builder tool for more).