“Game of Thrones” in Brussels: who will be the next Commission President?
11 June 2019 /
The 2019 EU elections came and left a dynamic fragmented political environment behind it. Traditional parties in the European Parliament (EP) have lost many seats, while both Eurosceptics and pro-EU forces have gained seats. The citizens asked for greener, more progressive policies, but also for more nationalist and anti-EU policies. What can we learn from the EU elections? More importantly, what are the consequences for the next EP legislative period? Who will be the next President of the Commission and the European Council?
Outcome of the EU elections
Without even starting to look at who won and who lost, it is striking to see that the turnout for the European elections has finally increased to 51%. This is the highest turnout since 1994 (56.7% that year). Indeed, the turnout has decreased each year since 1994 and hit rock bottom with 42.6% in 2014. This low turnout was partially questioning the legitimacy of the mandate of the Members of the European Parliament (MEP).
With regards to the preliminary results (therefore subject to possible small changes compared to when the final results will be known), we could see that the largest European group, the European People’s Party (EPP), suffered a lost of 37 seats in the EP, but remains the largest political group. The socialist group S&D is also one of the biggest “losers” of the elections, with 33 seats less than in 2014. Taken together, the EPP and S&D do not have a majority in the EP anymore.
The “winners” are the ecologist Greens/EFA (with 22 more MEPs) and especially the liberal group ALDE/Renaissance (with 40 more MEPs, thanks to Macron joining the group). But the winners, in some ways, are also the Eurosceptic groups of the EFDD (thanks to the Brexit Party and the 5 STar Movement) and mostly of the ex- ENF with a dramatic increase of 37 seats (thanks to Salvini’s alliance of Eurosceptic parties across Europe, such as the Rassemblement national in France). Final seats results may change.
Some people were bracing themselves for a Eurosceptic wave, but we clearly have a pro-EU majority in the EP. However, building a majority coalition will be more difficult than in 2014. Indeed, this time we will need at least three groups, instead of two, to reach the 376 seats of absolute majority. All the Eurosceptic groups taken together, even after their new gains in seats, cannot reach 367 seats and will remain a minority during the next legislature. If the three Eurosceptic groups join together and have an absolute cohesion among their MEPs (which is not likely), they would certainly make the EU decision making more difficult, but could not block the EP as they will never have an absolute majority.
We must not forget that after Brexit, the distribution of seats in the EP will change. As a matter of fact, we will move from a total of 751 seats to 705 seats, and some groups will lose MEPs while others will gain a few. The most impacted group will be the EFDD, where the UK Brexit Party is. The EFDD would indeed lose 25 of its 54 seats after Brexit (if it ever happens). The EPP, in its case, would gain 4 seats after Brexit.
What the results mean for the top EU posts
Let us now focus on the executive side of the EU elections. According to the EU Treaty, the European Council, composed by the Heads of State and Delegations (HoSD), will have to choose by qualified majority the candidates for the top EU posts for the next legislative period, taking into consideration the results of the EU elections. The candidates will then need to be approved by a simple majority of the EP. The four top EU positions that need a replacement are the Presidents of the European Commission, European Parliament, European Council, and the High Representative of the EU (HR/VP).
In 2014, the Spitzenkandidaten system was introduced. Simply speaking, the Spitzenkandidaten process was meant to have the lead candidate of the first European group (i.e. the one that gets the most seats) to become the next President of the Commission. Hence, if the EPP has the most votes and if it can gather a majority, the EP would normally support the EPP’s candidate (Juncker in 2014) to become the next President. However, this has become more unlikely this time. Indeed, some HoSD such as Macron and some MEPs such as Verhofstadt are against this process, because of the lack of transnational electoral lists. Moreover, the EPP has always won the most seats and would therefore always designate the President of the Commission. Furthermore, the EPP candidate, Manfred Weber, has no relevant experience in executive positions, and is German: German people already occupy a lot of EU top posts, which annoys some politicians.
In addition to this, the EPP, while remaining the largest group, is also the group that has lost the most MEPs. Moreover, the CDU/CSU, the main party of the EPP, lost the EU elections in Germany, and the Austrian MP, a strong supporter of Weber, will have to resign because of a scandal in his government. Finally, the HoSG members of the EPP are now clearly in minority in the European Council, and cannot count on making a coalition with the S&D HoSD as in 2014, because the socialists (in smaller minority too than in 2014) are now fighting to have Frans Timmermans as the next Commission President. However, European Council President Donald Tusk noted that the designation of the next Commission President is not 100% restricted to the Spitzenkandidaten system.
The Spitzenkandidaten system states that the election results have to be taken into consideration when designating the Commission’s president, which can be understood in different ways. According to the EPP, it means that we have to look at the strongest party. Other so-called “progressive” forces, claim that we need to consider the bigger picture, which is citizens striving for significant change with more EU competence and more action on climate change issues, instead of maintaining the status quo.
Many names for the top EU posts are rumoured: in addition to those already mentioned, we also have Michel Barnier (the Brexit negotiator for the EU), Christine Lagarde (current IMF chief), Ska Keller (the co-President of the EU Greens) and Margrethe Vestager (current Commissioner for Competition). Speaking about these three women, they seem to have more chances today than in 2014. This is due to Jean-Claude Juncker’s and Donald Tusk’s stated aim to achieve, in addition to political, ideological and geographical equality, gender equality for the future top EU posts, with at least two women. Currently, only the HR/VP is a woman: Federica Mogherini.
The Eurosceptic parties gained seats, but did less well than expected, while the pro-EU groups of the ALDE and Greens gained many more MEPs, at the expense of the main conservative EPP. While the EP is less anti-EU than projected by some polls, finding a majority to vote in favour of the legislations will be more tricky because of the bigger political fragmentation than in 2014. As for the top EU posts (Commission, EP, European Council, HR/VP), it will be even trickier than in 2014 as the Spitzenkandidaten process is ambiguous, and no majority among HoSD can be found so far on a name. The European Council is set to meet on 11 and 12 June to directly discuss names, but because of the big number of candidates, the ideological and political differences, the unpopularity of Weber and the wish of France to have a candidate with a clear progressive pro-EU agenda, it is a real Game of Thrones battle that is set to happen in Brussels, which could last for months.
EUROPEAN COMMISSION, “European Elections 2019”, Political report, 28 May 2019.
EUROPE ELECT, 2019 Spitzenkandidaten, europeelects.eu/2019spitzenkandidaten.
QUATREMER, J., “Commission : la candidature Weber rejetée, la perle rare reste à trouver”, Libération, 29 mai 2019, https://www.liberation.fr/planete/2019/05/29/commission-la-candidature-weber-rejetee-la-perle-rare-reste-a-trouver_1730332.
RETTMAN, A., “Women should fill two EU top jobs, Tusk says”, EUObserver, 29 mai 2019, https://euobserver.com/eu-election/145047.
ZALAN, E., “Merkel and Macron split over Weber presidency”, EUObserver, 28 mai 2019, https://euobserver.com/eu-election/145038.