Habemus Presidentus

After long and difficult negotiations, the European leaders have come to an agreement on the four top jobs in the European Union. After all, none of the previously speculated candidates have been rewarded for their campaign.

The EU’s top jobs go to:

  • President of the European Council is Charles Michel (Renew Europe) from Belgium;
  • (nominated) President of the European Commission is Ursula von der Leyen (EPP) from Germany;
  • (nominated) President of the European Central Bank is Christine Lagarde (EPP) from France;
  • (nominated) High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is Joseph Borell (S&D) from Spain.
  • President of the European Parliament will be David Sassoli (S&D) from Italy.

It is clear that there is now no geographical balance between the Western and Eastern European countries and the above nominations have been a result of days-long tough negotiations. Traditionally the function of the Presidency of the European Commission is reserved for the biggest group in the European Parliament, which has been the EPP. Since the introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten process (by the Lisbon Treaty), the European Parliament even tried to institutionalize the nomination of the President of the European Commission, but after all the European Council has the final word to decide over this role. The Spitzenkandidat of the EPP, Manfred Weber, lost substantial support in the last weeks and there were doubts regarding his nomination even within his own party. Most of the criticism was due to his lack of experience in the executive branch. Therefore, there have been a few alternative names floating, including Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, but also German Chancellor Angela Merkel as possible successor of Jean-Claude Juncker.

Frans Timmermans, however, seems to be the biggest loser. During the G20 Summit in Osaka, Angela Merkel proposed the social democrat Frans Timmermans as the new President of the European Commission. However, EPP was not in favour of this solution. alongside with the V4 countries that opposed Timmermans because, as Vice-President of the Commission, he often criticized these countries due to their issues with the rule of law.

In the afternoon of 2 July, the name of German Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, emerged as a new option as President of the European Commission. She is German and knows Brussels very well, but she also speaks French, something that made her also a good option for French President Emmanuel Macron. In return, Macron proposed Christine Lagarde as the new president of the ECB. Gender balance has thus been achieved and in order to meet the geographical balance, the Member States proposed the Bulgarian Sergei Stanishev as new President of the European Parliament. However, the European Parliament has the right to choose its new president and the MEPs voted in favour of David Sassoli (S&D) from Italy.

Ursula von der Leyen is yet to be confirmed by the European Parliament as the President of the Commission, however, it seems that the Socialists and the Greens are not satisfied with the choice of the Member States.

EU Summit – EU leaders fail to agree on top jobs and long-term climate strategy

On 20 and 21 June, European Union leaders met in Brussels for a two-day summit to reach an agreement on who the next leaders of the EU institutions will be and to discuss the EU’s strategic agenda for the next five years. Additionally, they also planned to discuss climate change and the bloc’s long-term budget.

Unsurprisingly, the Heads of State and Government of the EU failed to agree on a name for the next Commission President and will meet again on June 30 to try to finally seal a deal. Gathering just a few weeks after the European elections, the leaders were determined to agree on key appointments before the new European Parliament has its first plenary session in the first week of July. Ahead of the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk was already expecting stiff opposition from some EU leaders to the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber. He proved himself right at the end, with EU leaders ultimately being divided: Emmanuel Macron called the whole Spitzenkandidaten process, which ties the appointment to the results of the elections, a fiction. Angela Merkel (Germany, EPP) and Mark Rutte (Netherlands, Renew Europe) were less harsh in their assessment and are still hoping to secure support for their Spitzenkandidaten at the next European Council.

Moreover, not only the European Council is divided, but also the European Parliament strongly voiced its opposition against EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber. The Socialist and Liberal groups in the European Parliament openly opposed Weber’s candidature. Lastly, the hesitation on the part of the European Parliament to agree on a single candidate could benefit the European Council, which could force a candidate on the European Parliament. Of course, this course of action depends on the European leaders getting their acts together and acting forcefully. In order to do that, they will have to agree on a suitable candidate sooner rather than later.

The appointment of the next European Commission President thus appears to plunge the EU into an institutional crisis. Still, the difficulties in the current negotiations should not be exaggerated since also in 2014, the final decision was made only in late August. However, at the time, the EPP and S&D still had a joint majority and were able to agree on a single candidate, contrary to the current situation. As such, it still remains unclear who will ultimately fill Jean-Claude Juncker’s shoes.

The European Council also failed to agree on the 2050 climate goals as Poland, Czechia, Estonia and Hungary opposed the inclusion of an explicit date. The EU split on climate change measures showed once again the rift between the western and eastern Member States. The latter heavily depend on a fossil-fuel economy and thus do not support targets already agreed by the bloc as they perceive them as damaging to their economies. The conclusions of EUCO called on the Commission and the Council to work further towards a climate-neutral EU in line with the Paris Agreement while taking into account Member States’ national circumstances and respecting their right to decide on their own energy mix. The issue is expected to come up again at the next European Council with an agreement scheduled to be reached at the end of 2019.

During the summit, the EU leaders did agree on a strategic agenda for 2019-2024, in which they pledge to protect citizens and freedoms, develop a strong and vibrant economic base, build a more climate-friendly, green, fair and inclusive future and defend European interests and values on the global stage. The strategic agenda will serve as the framework for the actions of the next European Commission. Together with a joint program from the four major political groups (EPP, S&D, RE and the Greens), both documents will heavily influence the working programme of the next European Commission.

23 May: Kick off European Parliament Election

Today, the European Parliamentary elections kick off with citizens going to the polls in two Member States, namely the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (UK). As the UK has been granted a ‘flextension’, meaning that the Brexit deadline has been extended until 31 October, the UK is now obliged to participate in the elections. This also means that the number of MEPs will remain 751 instead of 705. However, the British government is trying to avoid that British MEPs will actually take their seats.

One of the first things to keep an eye on is the turnout. In recent years the turnout has drastically decreased which only seems to confirm that for many people the European elections remain second-order elections.

With regard to the seat allocation of the new European Parliament, there is only a small chance that the existing informal majority of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will continue. Both parties are predicted to lose many seats: the latest poll predicts the EPP to lose 48 seats, while the S&D is likely to lose 39 seats. Combined, they would lose 87 seats which would mean that the traditional parties have a shortage of 61 seats to form a majority. In addition, it is not clear what Fidesz, the party of Hungarian President Viktor Orbán which is currently suspended from the EPP, is going to do after the elections. The third biggest group, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) together with  La République En Marche! (LREM)  of French President Emmanuel Macron will form the new “Renaissance” group, which would have 105 seats in the new European Parliament. Some look to the Greens-EFA as a possible coalition partner for the traditional parties, but a working majority between the EPP, the S&D and the Greens-EFA will be difficult as the latter are predicted to win only 55 seats and furthermore, their positions are diverging in various topics.

At this moment in time, it is clear that there is no real ‘winner’ and the European Parliament is expected to be more divided than ever: the appearance of new parties will add to the division. The Italian 5 Stars Movement announced they will leave the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group and Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini established another new party, the European Alliance of People and Nations (ex-ENF). Salvini’s group is now projected to have 74 seats according to Politico and will consequently be the fourth biggest in the next European Parliament. In addition, the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage (ex-UKIP) and other new and unaffiliated parties will most likely take away a few seats from the currently bigger groups. On top of this,  the eventual exit of the UK will be detrimental to the total number of seats of both the S&D and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

A fragmented European Parliament with more radical parties will make it difficult for MEPs to find allies within the groups and will consequently make decision-making in the only directly elected EU institution challenging.