EU leaders seek answers after eurosceptic 'quake'

27th May 2014, Comments 0 comments

EU leaders wrestled Tuesday for a joint response to a dismal European vote that saw dramatic gains by radical anti-establishment parties, with Britain, Germany and France calling for EU reforms.

Europe's heads of state and government gather over dinner in Brussels for an informal summit at 1700 GMT to take stock of the election disaster and start the difficult process of nominating new European Union leaders.

Shaken by a thrashing at the hands of the far-right National Front (FN) in the bloc's second biggest economy -- his own party slipping to a mere 14 percent -- French President Francois Hollande on Monday demanded change to a "remote and incomprehensible" EU.

The election has served up a clear message of voters fed up with economic distress, belt-tightening austerity, immigration and, most of all, aloof and meddlesome bureaucrats in Brussels.

After decades of striving to tighten EU integration with "more Europe", many Europeans seem to believe that is no longer the answer.

"Europe has to be simple, clear, to be effective where it is needed, and to withdraw from where it is not necessary," Hollande said in a special televised address to the nation.

It was the same tune across the Channel after British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has one eye on national elections next year, saw anti-EU outsider -- the UK Independence Party (UKIP) -- make history by topping polls in Britain.

- 'Need for change' -

At their talks, EU leaders "should seize the opportunity to heed the views expressed at the ballot box that the EU needs to change and to show it cannot be business as usual," Cameron's Downing Street office said.

But in Brussels, as if on cue, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was quick to the charge.

The vote may have produced a "big dissident voice (but)... I have just sat in a meeting where you would think nothing had happened at all, it was business as usual," he said on exiting talks between the heads of the European Parliament's party groupings.

In marked contrast to Cameron and Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out of the European Parliament elections relatively unscathed, delivering her usual message of the need for "growth and jobs... the best answer" to the EU's current malaise.

Final figures for the four-day election have yet to be released, but the latest projections give the conservative European People's Party (EPP) 213 seats out of 751, with the Socialists on 190 and the Liberals 64.

That will give the centre-right, centre-left and Liberals a solid working majority.

But the eurosceptics, xenophobes and even outright fascists about to sit in parliament and win EU funding, along with radical left groups, will gain a platform for their views as well as scope to slow down the assembly's legislative process.

Latest figures give the anti-EU camp about 140 seats though analysts say it will be difficult for the disparate groups to operate in a coherent fashion.

- Top EU appointments -

Also on the 28 leaders' minds at dinner, will be critical decisions to be taken over a summer that will see all the EU's top EU officials replaced, beginning with a new president for the powerful European Commission, the EU's executive arm which proposes and enforces laws.

In previous years, this was the entire prerogative of the bloc's national leaders, nominations discussed among themselves behind closed doors.

But the latest rules in the EU bible, set down in the Lisbon Treaty, state somewhat ambiguously that they must "take into account" the people's voice via the election results.

On that basis, the five main parliament groups elected their own candidates for Commission president and warned they fully expected EU leaders to name one of them to the post.

As Parliament is the EU's only directly elected body, they argue, this would be the best way to bolster the bloc's democratic credibility.

On Tuesday, European Parliament party leaders agreed to back Jean-Claude Juncker of the conservative EPP for Commission president as his party topped the vote.

Should he fail to put together a 376-seat majority in parliament then the job could fall to Martin Schulz of the second-placed Socialists.

However the process is expected to take weeks, perhaps months, with one senior EU official warning "there will be no white smoke" at the dinner.

© 2014 AFP

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