In amongst all the election analysis on the Friday morning after the night before, there was a widely reported quote from Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission: “As far as the Commission is concerned, we can open Brexit negotiations tomorrow morning at half-past-nine.”
My first reaction was quite defensive. While kicking someone when so obviously down may not be all that un-British, surely we should be allowed time to have first go. Besides, Juncker’s own prime ministerial career hardly ended in glory, so I thought I’d make it the peg for this blog about how some other EU countries, starting with Juncker’s Luxembourg, might handle Theresa May’s little parliamentary arithmetic problem.
During the two-year Brexit negotiation, several EU states will hold parliamentary elections, any of which could produce changes of government – though not necessarily instantly or overnight, as Juncker’s jibe seemed to imply he expected of us.
Luxembourg’s elections are due next October – five years after those held prematurely in 2013, prompted by Juncker being forced to step down from his record-length 18-year premiership, having lost parliament’s support for presiding either unknowingly or untellingly over years of illegal activities by the state intelligence agency.
His Christian Social People’s Party (CSV) had been in government since 1979, latterly in coalition with the Socialist Workers Party (LSAP). The CSV again won comfortably the most seats, but the resultant government was what we might call a rainbow coalition, or ‘minimum winning coalition’ – of the smallest number of parties able between them to form a majority. This one was popularly labelled the ‘Gambia coalition’, with the participating parties’ red (LSAP), blue (Democratic Party) and green (Green Party) colours matching those of the Gambian national flag. More relevant, though, is how it was negotiated.
After a few days of election recovery and exploratory inter-party talks, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg nominated Xavier Bettel, Democratic Party leader, as formateur – literally the person judged most likely, and now with official responsibility, to form a viable coalition government.
The whole process, as Juncker knew at first hand, took over five weeks – and that with a parliament a sixth the size of the Commons. The politicians weren’t “teary and exhausted”, with “everyone knackered, new or under-resourced”, as Theresa May and her office were reported as being (Sunday Times, June 18, p.16). The country didn’t shut down, and a stable government was formed.
Likewise, following Germany’s last elections in September 2013, when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic/Social Union (CDU/CSU) achieved its best result since 1990, with close to 42% of the vote, but finished five seats short of the 316 required for an overall Bundestag majority. Statistically, a position almost identical to that of May’s Conservatives. The difference was that the ‘Grand Coalition’ of the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats took three months to finalise – but again without the heavens falling in.
As Juncker also knew, though, the UK is not like most EU countries, particularly those with proportional representation electoral systems, for whom coalitions and working collaboratively with one or even more ‘other’ parties are seen as natural and even positive. For our politicians – and, it must be said, media – anything short of a stonking, wildly disproportional one-party majority signifies some fearful and embarrassing systemic failure, to be somehow papered over at the earliest opportunity. My personal guess, then, is that the Commission President’s Friday morning remarks were gently mocking the political frenzy he knew May had unleashed almost as much as the PM herself.
And that was probably before he knew the best bit. How this of all PMs – whose inability to share any decision with even her own Cabinet had created this potential constitutional crisis – was about to make a desperate, unplanned, ill-considered lunge for some, any, kind of voting support from the Democratic Unionists (DUP). And to do so, moreover, before she even knew the final total of her own MPs, and with nothing remotely to match the DUP’s “12-page route map of 45 priority demands” fully prepared and waiting.
The formateur system, with its institutionalised recognition of the importance of the inter-party negotiations required to form a sound and lasting coalition, seems a sensible one, which explains why it’s also used by, among others, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Israel. Not, though, by the French themselves, because the combination of their strong presidential system and their two-round elections aims, like our first-past-the-post ones, to render post-election fixes unnecessary.
This weekend, then, we’ve have the second, or run-off, round of National Assembly elections, within a month of Emmanuel Macron being elected President, the constitutional aim, highly effectively achieved, being to give the new President and his new centrist party government a ‘double mandate’.
Last time, in 2012, support for newly elected Socialist President Hollande wasn’t as great, in which circumstances the French way is – to adapt the rugby retaliation tactic – to get your negotiation in first. It’s a kind of effective version of what the Progressive Alliance was trying for in our election: an agreement among the supposedly ‘progressive’ Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties that their candidates – of all three parties, not just the Greens – would stand aside for another progressive candidate with an apparently better chance of winning that particular constituency.
In France, Left, Right, and this time Centre parliamentary party groupings are negotiated and publicised in advance of the elections. And candidates really do withdraw prior to the second-round vote in favour of a rival in the same grouping more likely to win, while voters know in advance who their candidates will ally themselves with, should no single big party achieve an overall majority.
In 2012, the Socialist Party’s 280 seats did fall short of the 289 majority figure by almost precisely the same distance as Theresa May’s Conservatives. Hollande’s party, however, already had a Left grouping negotiated with the Greens and several other smaller parties, holding an additional 48 seats. Majority effectively secured.
Across Europe as a whole, this approach and its speed are the exception. Even so, the example illustrates the obvious lesson: whether you do your negotiations before or after you know the detailed numbers, government formation following an inconclusive election result needs, deserves and almost certainly repays time.
Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.