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EU: Victory For Portuguese Center-Right Could Have Wide Impact

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Portugal's ruling Socialist Party has conceded defeat to the center-right opposition Social Democrats in parliamentary elections on 17 March. The Social Democrats, led by Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, beat the Socialists only narrowly. But their victory could have a European dimension if it heralds a trend to lean to the right in coming elections in big European Union member states France and Germany. That's because EU leaders will have to decide by 2004 what reforms to adopt in the Union, to equip it for its impending eastward expansion. If more center-right leaders are in power, the program they would be willing to adopt could be quite different from that which the political left would choose.

Prague, 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Portugal's center-right Social Democrats (PSD) has scored a narrow victory over the left in parliamentary elections. Voters favored their program -- of reviving the Portuguese economy with tax cuts and lower public spending -- above a continuation of Socialist rule.

However, the PSD, which is led by former Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, lacks a parliamentary majority and will probably have to join in coalition talks with the small rightist Popular Party. Analysts say the narrow margin of the center-right's victory over the Socialists may herald a period of instability in Portuguese politics.

That prospect didn't worry a jubilant Barroso as he met cheering supporters in Lisbon yesterday: "I am very confident that now we can find a stable solution [in forming a government]. This was a very important victory after six years of Socialist government. We won by a clear difference. Portuguese people showed the will for change, and now we have to build a solution of stability and credibility for Portugal."

On the broader front, the swing to the right in Portugal could be a harbinger in bigger European Union member states. Both Germany and France have key elections this year, with the Germans holding parliamentary voting in September, and France a presidential poll beginning ib 21 April.

In Germany, the center-right candidate for chancellor, Bavarian State Premier Edmund Stoiber, has been leading current Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in public opinion polls. In France, Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, who is the country's present prime minister, is slightly ahead of conservative incumbent President Jacques Chirac.

All this can be seen as the normal battle between left and right in mainstream European politics. Indications are that the pendulum is swinging in favor of the conservatives after a period of center-left rule in a number of EU states. But the normal rotation, this time around, could have significant consequences.

That's because the EU's Convention on the Future of Europe is scheduled to have ready within the next year its recommendations for a special conference of EU leaders, to be held in 2004. The convention has just started work on a virtual redesign of EU institutions, to allow them to work efficiently when the Union's membership is almost doubled by the arrival of Central and Eastern European countries.

The convention delegates are seen largely as pro-integrationist, meaning they broadly favor strengthening the Union even at the expense of the sovereignty of individual member states. Their recommendations, therefore, could be fairly radical. French socialist delegate Pierre Moscovice, for instance, has already said the convention should not be afraid of "heading toward a united states of Europe."

That sort of thinking does not square with conservatives like Chirac and Stoiber. Chirac has ruled out the "united states of Europe" idea, saying member states must remain in charge of their own affairs. Nor is it acceptable to Stoiber, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative from Germany's most conservative state.

If Chirac is returned to power, and Stoiber gains national power as Germany's chancellor, then there will be a formidable array of figures who do not favor a strong Brussels at the expense of member states's rights. That's not to say they don't want effective EU reforms, but that they do not want such reforms to bite into national sovereignties.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair falls into this camp, along with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose government in Rome is characterized by sharp anti-EU rhetoric from some of its ministers.

The head of the European Policy Centre in Brussels, John Palmer, says it won't be easy for heads of state or government to overturn the findings of the Convention on the Future of Europe.

"The heads of state will meet in a special intergovernmental conference in 2004 to finalize the changes. But I think it will be virtually impossible for the heads of state to ignore, or seek to reverse, in any substantial way, the majority conclusions of this Convention," Palmer says. "So although they [the delegates] do not have the last legal word, I think theirs is the politically determining influence."

However, the findings of the Convention are only recommendations. They are not binding on the heads of state and government who will attend the intergovernmental conference to finalize the reforms. So despite the weight of the convention's authority, it seems unlikely that a formidable team like Chirac, Stoiber, Blair, and Berlusconi, plus the skeptical Swedes and Danes, could be persuaded to approve a reform program they oppose ideologically.

If, on the other hand, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder and his center-left coalition is returned to power in Germany, and if French Socialist Lionel Jospin gains the presidency in Paris in place of Chirac, any pro-integration reform program will have more chance of being dealt with sympathetically.