The EU elections began on Thursday, May 23, and run to Sunday, May 26. These are likely to see a significant change in the make-up of the European Parliament, with the main center-left and center-right parties losing overall control. It will also kick off formally the process for appointing a new European Commission – which, this year, comes alongside the appointment of a number of other senior European figures.
Indeed, the five most important institutional leaders of the EU – the presidents of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Central Bank, as well as the High Representative for Foreign Policy – will be replaced in the months to come. None of the current incumbents will remain in post.
This change of guard will shape the future of the continent for years to come. The main player in the appointment process, which will start at the end of May 2019, is the European Council made up of Heads of State and Governments. The 28 EU leaders will have appoint four of the five most senior EU positions almost simultaneously. As usual, they will need to respect a subtle balance between political groups, larger and smaller countries, Eastern and Western, Northern and Southern candidates, and a gender balance.
A dinner of the European Council has been planned for May 28, just after the Parliamentary elections. The Council’s president, Donald Tusk, hopes to arrive at a “package deal” in the regular European Council on June 20-21. Considering the difficulty of the task, as outlined below, this objective is ambitious. But the EU leaders have a clear interest in not postponing the decision until after the summer, when other challenges will await them – notably, the decision on the new seven-year financial framework, and Brexit.
After a brief overview of the likely results of the European Parliament election, we will examine what is at stake for each of the five positions to fill.
The Election of the European Parliament
Elections take place simultaneously in the 28 Member States between May 23 and 26. The turnout is expected, as previously, to be lower than for national elections – for the 2014 elections, it was an average of 42,54%.
In the European elections, fringe and populist parties tend to get more votes than at the national level, this election being seen by many as an opportunity to cast a protest vote with fewer consequences. In the current political context, this phenomenon will probably be amplified.
It is thus expected that, this year, the two main political groups combined (the center-right Christian Democrats of the EPP and the center-left Socialists of the S&D), will no longer have the absolute majority. They will therefore lose control of Parliamentary proceedings and major committee appointments. This time, they will have to take into account the centrist Liberals, who will likely be boosted by the arrival of Emmanuel Macron’s party, “La République en Marche” (campaigning for the European elections as “Renaissance”), which will want to reproduce in the Parliament the influence their leader exerts on the European Council.
Contrary to what some believe, the “Eurosceptic” wing is unlikely to dominate the Parliament and will almost certainly not be able to influence the appointment of the leaders of the institutions. But if some of the larger populist parties manage to assemble in one political group, they might have a sizeable “nuisance” value. Indeed, it is expected that Salvini’s Lega, Le Pen’s “Rassemblement National” and the “Alternative für Deutschland” (perhaps joined by UKIP or Farage’s Brexit party) will assemble in a new right-wing block, dubbed the “European Alliance of Peoples and Nations” political group, which could secure more than 80 seats (out of 751).
The President of the European Commission
The appointment of a new Commission President will be the most difficult, because of a disagreement between the European Council and the Parliament about the procedure to follow. The quarrel about the so called “Spitzenkandidaten” procedure will indeed be the main obstacle to a smooth process for selecting the five leadership positions.
The president of the Commission was previously appointed by consensus by the heads of governments of the Member States. He or she is now “elected” by the European Parliament, but this is an “up or down” vote on a single candidate proposed by the European Council (by qualified majority).
In order to make this selection more “democratic”, the Lisbon treaty provides that the European Council, when selecting its candidate, needs to “take into account the elections to the European Parliament”. On that basis, before the 2014 election, the “federalists” in the Parliament encouraged the political groups to select candidates for the Commission post, and committed to supporting the candidate from whichever group obtained the highest number of seats in the Parliamentary elections.
The main supporter of the process was Martin Schulz, the center-left President of the Parliament, who had been selected by his group and hoped that the crisis generated by austerity would hand the election to the Socialists. It went however to the Christian democrats, who had selected Jean Claude Juncker, the long serving prime minister of Luxemburg, over Michel Barnier.
The heads of government did not accept, out of principle, that the choice presented to the European Council would be limited from the start to one person selected through the election of the Parliament. It would have meant indeed a serious blow to the balance of power among the institutions: the Treaty gives the Parliament the final say but it does not give it the right of initiative.
However, Jean Claude Juncker’s profile, rather than the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, made him an easy choice for the Council. Throughout his long career, Juncker participated in the Council and the European Council and was a reassuring figure for his ex-colleagues. It was therefore only when she was sure that the Socialists were not going to win the Parliamentary elections that Angela Merkel accepted to support his appointment through the Spitzenkandidaten procedure. If the Socialists had won more votes than the Christian Democrats, it is far from certain that their candidate would have been chosen as easily.
This year, the EPP candidate, Manfred Weber, has a profile closer to that of Schulz than of Juncker: he has participated neither in the European Council nor in the Commission. His campaign was lacklustre and he remains largely unknown. A recent poll in Germany indicated that only 26% of his compatriots know who he is. The candidate for the Socialists, Frans Timmermans, is more charismatic and has a better track record, having been minister for a long time in his country and first vice president in the current Commission. But there is little chance that his group will come first.
An additional problem for the Spitzenkandidaten procedure in this year’s election is its radical rejection by the European leader, currently enjoying most publicity, Emmanuel Macron. His party, “La République en Marche” will sit in the new Parliament in a new centrist group. This group has no chance of being the first in the election, but intends to play an important role in the new Parliament – and he, unsurprisingly, intends to have a say in the choice of the Commission’s president.
The chances of Manfred Weber being chosen “automatically” after the elections are therfure very limited, even if, as is likely, the EPP gets the highest number of seats. This will appear clearly in the European Council dinner on May 28. President Tusk will then, as prescribed by the treaty, conduct “appropriate consultations”, notably with the new Parliament which, throughout the month of June, will be busy organizing its own leadership structures. He will then go back to the Council in its June 20 ordinary session with names, not only for that post, but also for his own replacement and for the new president of the European Central Bank, whom he wants to be chosen in a ‘package’.
Even if no one other than the Spitzenkandidaten are openly campaigning, a few alternative names are already circulating for the succession of Jean Claude Juncker: Michel Barnier, currently the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator; Margarethe Vestager, the Competition Commissioner – and even Angela Merkel, since everyone has noted her step back from national politics since her retirement as chair of her party.
The President of the European Council
There have been only two “permanent” presidents of the European Council to date: Herman Van Rompuy and Donald Tusk. The role, before the Lisbon Treaty, belonged to the head of government of the country holding the six-month rotating presidency.
The appointment is decided by the European Council for a term of two and a half years, renewable once, which in principle does not allow Tusk to remain. He seems in any case more interested in a return to the tumultuous internal politics of his home country, Poland.
Even if the treaty does not say so explicitly, the choice of its president is limited to current or former members of the European Council. There are no formal candidates, but the current prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, as well as a few of his colleagues and ex-colleagues from Northern or Eastern Europe, are clearly interested.
The need to ensure a sufficient diversity among member states at the top level gives no chance to a merging of the (widely overlapping) posts of president of the Commission and of the Council – an old idea that had been revived by Jean Claude Juncker last year. The political will to give the institutions a powerful leadership will thus continue to be tested by the quality of the people chosen for the two jobs – and their ability to work together, as Juncker and Tusk managed rather well.
The President of the European Parliament
The Parliament will elect its president in July, after having officially been inaugurated.
The EPP and the S&D had taken the habit of sharing the presidency, each for two and a half years. In 2014, the first half went to Martin Schulz, the socialist Spitzenkandidat, who had already been the president of the Assembly for the two and a half years before. This gesture was seen as a “consolation” for his having missed the presidency of the Commission. For the second term, the Parliament elected Antonio Tajani, a prominent member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, affiliated with the EPP. Four rounds of votes, however, were needed for his election, since the EPP/S&D understanding had broken down.
This sharing of the Parliament’s presidency was only possible as long as the EPP and the S&D agreed, and together held an absolute majority in the legislature. This is unlikely to be the case after this election. The leader of the centrist Liberal group (ALDE), Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister, whose support will be needed to give the parliament a stable majority, has already put himself forward as a candidate for the post.
The High Representative
The post of High Representative for EU Foreign Policy was created in 1999 and “double-hatted” with that of Secretary General of the Council. It went to Javier Solana, who had been the Spanish Foreign Minister and Secretary General of NATO. Solana stayed on for ten years. The post was then upgraded by the Lisbon Treaty, which made it one of the most important but also most difficult in the EU leadership system: the High Representative manages the EU foreign policy, presides the Council for Foreign Affairs and is, at the same time, a Vice President of the European Commission.
Being a member of the Commission, the High Representative has to be agreed by the president of the Commission, but he or she needs first to be appointed by the European Council. Two women, Cathy Ashton and Federica Mogherini, have held the post. Mogherini had been offered the job in 2014, after intense lobbying by Matteo Renzi, who had won 31 seats in the Parliament. His Partito Democratico is now in opposition, and is likely to lose almost all its seats in Parliament, which makes it highly unlikely that Mogherini would be re-appointed.
As was the case in 2009 and 2014, the post will probably be decided as part of a package with the other leadership positions, with the risk of offering it to someone who doesn’t have the required profile. Ideally, the High Representative should not only have experience in foreign policy issues, but should also have held high-level positions in his or her country, or in a multilateral institution. This was the case with Solana, but not with his two successors.
Indeed, the EU treaty gives the High Representative, and not the president of the Commission or of the European Council, the competence to ‘conduct’ the foreign policy of the Union. Juncker is only competent for community matters, Tusk has only a ceremonial role in contacts with third countries.
Solana, because of his profile (and his personality) was accepted as an interlocutor at the highest level, whilst neither of his successors was ever considered by Vladimir Putin or the U.S. President as a valid interlocutor. This is why, for instance, the EU part in the Minsk ceasefire agreement in Ukraine is played, by default, by the French president and the German chancellor.
The President of the European Central Bank
At the head of an institution that was expressly designed to be independent of national governments, the President of the ECB remains, to date, the most independent European leader.
The first holder of the position, Wim Duisenberg, was appointed in 1998 after a memorable lunch which lasted until late in the evening, with Jacques Chirac insisting stubbornly that the post should go to the then-Governor of Banque de France, Jean Claude Trichet. The compromise was to have Trichet replace Duisenberg at half-way through his term.
Trichet had to deal with the financial crisis which transformed the ECB presidency in a real political power base. Mario Draghi, who replaced him in 2011, became even more influential than his predecessor. His time at the helm of the ECB is best remembered for a single, short sentence in July 2012: “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro.”
The choice of Draghi’s successor will be difficult. It will also be a message about the direction that EU governments want to give to the bank’s policy: either a strict respect of its original mission, or a wider involvement in the management of European economic policy. Four candidates have announced their interest in the job:
- Jens Weidmann, the president of the Bundesbank. He is not only a German but a hawkish one, who openly criticized Draghi’s initiatives;
- Benoit Coeuré, the current French member of the ECB executive board – he would ensure continuity;
- Francois Villeroy de Galhau, the Governor of the Banque de France, who openly campaigns for a job that France has already occupied for 8 years;
- Olli Rehn, the governor of the bank of Finland and former EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, who played a positive role in the Euro crisis.