This time… it’s complicated

This time… it’s complicated

Ross Creelman June 2019

The European elections returned the most fragmented European Parliament to date. For the first time the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) cannot form a majority on their own, and will have to rely on other, smaller parties to reach a majority. The injection of 23 liberal French MEPs from Emmanuel Macron’s party En Marche has boosted the head count of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) – name subject to change – putting this group in a kingmaker position.

Majorities – relying on consensus and compromise – will be crucial in the passing of legislation over the next five years, but a much more pressing task is on the agenda: the Commission President. The European Council is tasked with choosing the President of the European Commission. The EU heads of government must ‘take into account the elections to the European Parliament’ to choose the President, and the Parliament must approve. In 2014, the new ‘Spitzenkandidat’ system meant that the EPP was in a strong position to push for their candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, to be chosen as President, with the approval of the S&D.

This time, many factors are at play. Firstly, the EPP-S&D majority is no longer there. If the S&D and ALDE do not like the thought of Manfred Weber (EPP Spitzenkandidat) as Commission President, they can block it, causing deadlock. Secondly, there is an almost existential tension between the heads of government and the European Parliament. Governments want to keep the power to choose the Commission President; the Parliament wants to be taken seriously, and have its role consolidated.

In the first European Council summit since the elections, on 28 May, the various political families nominated leaders from among their number to serve as ‘coordinators’: the EPP coordinators are Andrej Plenkovič (Croatian Prime Minister) and Krišjānis Kariņš (Latvian Prime Minister); the Liberals are Mark Rutte (Dutch Prime Minister) and Charles Michel (Belgian Prime Minister); and the Socialists chose Pedro Sánchez (Spanish Prime Minister) and António Costa (Portuguese Prime Minister). As well as the work being done by the ‘coordinators’, Donald Tusk is on a tour of Europe to consult with the heads of government, with the aim of getting a candidate, and choosing a nominee, by the European Council summit on 20-21 June.

In addition to Spitzenkandidaten Manfred Weber (EPP) and Frans Timmermans (S&D), other big names are stepping into the fray: Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager (ALDE) has indicated her intention to head the Commission, and has received the provisional support of her native Denmark. Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (EPP) has also been on a tour of Europe, and suggested that he, too, would be qualified to lead the Commission.

In this strange limbo between the old ‘Council only’ approach, and the Parliament demand to see ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ become a long-standing convention, with the new addition of political coordinators from among the heads of government, there is no way of being certain how this will turn out. This time it’s complicated.