Shortly after the first projections on the future distribution of seats in the European Parliament were announced, there was a lot of talk in Brussels about the need for change. Despite the sizeable losses suffered by the largest two political groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), their Spitzenkandidaten, Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, were in confident mood: during the night of the elections, Weber was talking about how important it now was to move away from crisis thinking and start a positive vision. Timmermans also spoke of a responsibility to do something positive and sit together. As the Spitzenkandidaten of what remain the largest two parties in the European Parliament, both claim the position of President of the European Commission. However, although article 17(7) of the EU Treaty requires the European Council to take account of the results of the European Parliament elections in its proposal for the chair of the Commission, the question of who gets the top job is by no means a done deal.
Power monopoly broken
There are others who have also thrown their hats into the ring or have been listed as possible candidates for the Commission President, especially the Liberal Margrethe Vestager, currently the Danish EU-Commissioner for Competition, who sent out a clear message after the two Spitzenkandidaten had made their speeches: new coalitions can be built, it is about being willing to embrace change, because the power monopoly has been broken. One thing is clear: the EPP and S&D can no longer share out the key EU posts between them, as they no longer have the necessary majority of 376 seats between them. It has been said a lot in recent days that the fragmentation of the European Parliament has increased, which carries the negative implication that the institution is now incapable of action. However, there is a more positive take on the situation: the Parliament has become more pluralist and more diverse, which may also mean opportunities for its work in the future.
Gains for Liberals and Greens
The Liberals and Greens have come out of these elections a lot stronger. As there are currently MEPs who have not yet been counted in the projections of the future group sizes and negotiations are ongoing with parties newly represented in the Parliament, the figures are not yet final. The preliminary results (see https://election-results.eu/) suggest that out of a total of 751 seats, the Liberals now hold 106 and the Greens 74. Numerically, the EPP, S&D and Liberals have a simple majority, which is needed for the Parliament to confirm the President of the Commission. However, as part of a broader pro-European alliance the Greens will unquestionably play an important role in the newly elected Parliament. For another change was on all lips during the election campaign and at the ballot boxes: climate change. The protests of recent weeks and months and the impact of Fridays for Future put quite a bit of pressure on certain parties during the election campaigns and led to a change of mindset. Never before have the risks of climate change been embraced by so many parties as an election campaign issue. Never before have so many parties committed to climate protection as a priority. The Greens certainly benefit from these developments, as the voters trust the Greens over all others to set solutions to climate change in train.
A Europe of climate protection, social justice and the rule of law
The Greens are the only parliamentary group who have been campaigning for decades with the utmost knowledge and commitment for an ambitious, future-oriented European energy and climate protection policy – despite the massive resistance they have faced in the European Parliament. Whatever statements the other parties are now making in favour of more climate protection, the EU is still a long way from adopting ambitious targets and measures to fight climate change. This will mainly be a job for the Greens. The fact that climate protection has finally made it onto the political agenda as a priority will create opportunities in the forthcoming legislative period to promote other political fields connected to climate protection within the Parliament, such as a sustainable EU agriculture policy, responsible EU budgetary planning, future-oriented mobility and a fair trade policy. It is important to stress that the Greens want to be seen as more than just the “climate party”. The Green Spitzenkandidaten team, Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout, have therefore pointed to the priorities of their group in the new Parliament: to discuss issues and work for more Europe in the areas of climate protection, social justice and the rule of law. Keller and Eickhout stress that the Greens have a mandate from the voters to usher in change in all these areas.
Although the right-wing nationalist parties did not end up winning the number of seats that many surveys predicted, there are still grounds for considerable concern. For the democratic, pro-European forces in the European Parliament, this growing, destructive minority represents one of the greatest challenges of the next five years. It is not yet clear whether the far-right parties will manage to create a larger group. In the outgoing Parliament, these parties are represented in various groups: the Italian Lega, the French Rassemblement National, Austria’s FPÖ and the separatist regional party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interests) have seats in the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group. Poland‘s PiS, the Danish People’s Party, the Finns Party and the Sweden Democrats are members of the European Conservatives and Reformists fraction (ECR). The Brexit Party and the AfD are in the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group, which was set up by UKIP and the Five-Star Movement. These groupings will rearrange themselves in the newly elected Parliament and seek to recruit new members. In the wake of the elections, neither the ENF nor the EFDD meet the criteria for recognition as parliamentary groups: 25 MEPs from at least seven member states. Even though the current seat distribution situation gives all three fractions far more than 25 MEPs (ECR: 64, ENF: 58, EFDD: 54), only five ENF and three EFDD parties have been voted into the new Parliament. Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen will probably not struggle to recruit new member parties, among them the AfD. However, nobody knows yet what will happen with the EFDD and, in particular, the Brexit Party, one of the strongest delegations with 29 seats. If Brexit goes ahead at the end of October, 27 seats out of the UK’s total of 73 will be divided between the remaining member states and 46 will be held in reserve for future rounds of enlargement.
Who wants Viktor Orbán?
The EPP also has a party that should be classified as being on the far-right spectrum: the MEPs of the Hungarian Fidesz Party have up to now sat within the EPP group. Following a smear campaign against George Soros and Jean-Claude Juncker, Fidesz’s membership was suspended in March 2019. The fact that the EPP has failed in recent years to distance itself convincingly in word and deed from the obvious dismantling of democracy in Hungary does not speak in favour of group chief Manfred Weber. In Brussels, many people are waiting with bated breath to see which group the 13 Fidesz MEPs will join in the new Parliament. On 31 May, Orbán announced that the most important issue for him was whether his party could influence the future direction of the EPP as a member of it. The day before, his Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyás, proclaimed that the Hungarian government respected Matteo Salvini, but did not see much opportunity to work together or be part of the same political group. The messages sent out by the Hungarian government were interpreted by certain media sources as Orbán’s attempt at a reconciliation with the EPP. However, in view of the majority situations described above, there is now almost no chance that it could possibly be in the EPP’s interests to continue to work with the Fidesz MEPs. For the S&D, the Liberals and the Greens, one of the chief conditions for negotiations with the EPP is that Fidesz is no longer a member of it. Orbán’s demands for the EPP to become part of an “alliance of anti-immigration parties” does not sit well with Manfred Weber’s aspirations to become the President of the Commission. Interestingly, on the very day of the election results, the ECR expressed its interest in working with Orbán in the future. If Fidesz joins it, all states of the Visegrád Group, over which Orbán hopes to increase his influence within the EU, will be represented in the ECR. Whether Orbán will accept the ECR’s offer or get involved in setting up a new parliamentary group remains to be seen. His frequently expressed wish of being able to shape the future course of the EPP is now looking unrealistic.
What will happen next?
In the next few weeks, the European Council will propose an individual to the Parliament to become the next president of the European Commission. The decision could be made by the end of June. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has received a mandate from the heads of state or government to hold exploratory talks with the Parliament. These negotiations will by no means be easy. The procedure is that the European Council must agree by qualified majority on a candidate for the Commission Presidency, meaning that 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the total EU population must back the proposal. This individual will not be confirmed as the Commission President until the Parliament votes in favour of this proposal by a majority of its members.
The French President, Emmanuel Macron, has spoken out against the Spitzenkandidaten principal and makes no secret of the fact that he considers Weber unsuitable to be Commission President. On his way to the informal dinner of the heads of state or government on 28 May, he said that he could see Vestager, Timmermans or EU chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, leading the Commission. It was no accident that he missed Weber off his list. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other hand, supports Weber and the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, but has also intimated that this support has its limits. She called for tolerance and a spirit of compromise and spoke in favour of a consensus decision, as the question of who holds the top EU job is a highly political issue. The most important EU roles are the Presidents of the Commission, Parliament, European Council and European Central Bank, plus the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It will all come down to whether a political compromise satisfactory to both the European Parliament and the European Council can be reached in the next few weeks. The election results and an examination of the political balance of power in the European Council make it quite clear that there can be no compromise against the EPP, S&D or Liberals.
The increased turnout rate in these elections has, quite rightly, been seen as a positive signal for the future of democracy in the EU. It has bolstered the Parliament’s relative weight compared to that of the European Council. However, it would send out a fatal signal to EU citizens if the next few weeks lead not to a constructive compromise, but to endless squabbling over who takes the top jobs. Instead, the message of the democratic, pro-European groups should be that together, we can bring about the agenda of political change needed for the EU to take an important and influential role as a positive force in an increasingly complex world.