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How domestic change might shift power relations in the European Council?

Introduction

The European Council plays a central role in defining the common political orientations of the EU. The Council time and again shows this in managing crises at EU-level, for example during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the EU-27’s political leaders represented in the European Council, national inclinations and politics are reflected within the Council, as Member States defend domestic agendas through coalition-building with like-minded countries. Dr2 Consultants’ international team shares some insights on how several upcoming national elections will possibly impact the power dynamics in the European Council.

Changes in the national political arena

With domestic change looming, the power dynamics and coalition-building in the European Council are like to change in the upcoming years. Where the relationship between Merkel and Macron ever more shows the strength of the Franco-German axis in the EU during the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, German elections this year and next year’s French Presidential elections could mean a blow to this ‘motor of European integration’.

Also, other Member States that took center stage during the COVID-19 recovery fund negotiations are confronted with looming change in national politics. The Netherlands, as the voice of the fiscally conservative “Frugal Four” Member States, will hold parliamentary elections in March, while Italy, as the propagator of more European solidarity, just installed a technical government that should invest Italy’s way out of the crisis.

What to expect?

The months ahead will thus witness major changes in domestic politics of the EU Member States that have been at the forefront of the discussions around the Recovery Fund allocations: namely France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The European Council dynamics will likely change according to the new political setting that will rise in the upcoming months.

Potential power shift on Franco-German axis

The main uncertainties lay on French-German elections, which, depending on the outcome, might lead to a shift in power relations among the European Member States. Macron’s French influence projection is slowly filling the gaps provided by German political uncertainty, while at the same time keeping a close eye of collaboration with its partner. If France were to take a more influential role within the EU, it could steer the European Council in a new direction. For the remainder of Macron’s presidency, France would turn the focus on strengthening the EU’s strategic autonomy, as well building up the EU’s power of decision, especially in urgent matters. However, this rise in level of influence could be completely nipped in the bud if Macron were not to be reelected in 2022, and even more so if he were to lose to euro-sceptic Marine Le Pen.

Potential friction on economic solidarity

The new Italian PM Draghi is also likely to trigger new dynamics in the European Council, due to its experience in EU affairs and fiscal rules observation, which inevitably denote recognition of its political stature. Mario Draghi’s expertise in financial matters could boost Italy’s capacity to make the best use of the EU Recovery Fund allocations, avoiding misuse or bureaucratic loops ending up in unspent resources. Finally, the Netherlands, which has so far been seen as guarantor of fiscal respect, risks being further isolated within the European Council, which could hamper its ability to optimally represent its interests. These political changes could lead to new relations being shaped within the European Council, with the Northern countries losing leverage and the Southern countries gaining ground for a solidarity approach combined with due financial observance.

Dr2 Consultants

Dr2 Consultants’ international team constantly monitors political changes throughout Europe, and the subsequent change of political dynamics at the EU level in order to identify threats and opportunities for its clients. After all, the political consensus in the European Council will in the long run impact the policymaking direction that will be taken by the European Commission.

For the interested reader, a short analysis per country follows below.

Country-specific analyses

Germany – a great legacy for a new Chancellor

On 26 September 2021, federal elections will take place in Germany to determine who will succeed Angela Merkel. A turning point in the history of unified Germany, as the current Chancellor has been in office for more than 15 years. After an internal debate in Merkel’s CDU party, Armin Laschet was chosen as peak candidate, and is likely to run for the chancellorship against the candidate of the current junior coalition party, the SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, and the leader of Bavaria and of Merkel’s CSU sister party, Markus Söder.

The focus on the role of Germany in leading European economic and political integration is of utmost importance, as Merkel’s successor will have to face the rising influence of Macron’s France. The axis with France builds on the historic reconciliation initiated by the Élysée Treaty of 1963 and strengthened by the Treaty on Franco-German Cooperation and Integration of January 2019. This revitalized cooperation inspired the Franco-German initiative for the European recovery from COVID-19 of May 2020, which marked not only a new step in the joint fight against the pandemic, but also a step forward in the Franco-German cooperation. This axis is likely to guide Europe towards a post-COVID-19 era of digitalization and sustainability, combining France’s focus on external relations and defence and Germany’s lead in trade and economic growth of the internal market. The question is whether the German federal elections and the French presidential elections of spring 2022 will bolster this complementarity or result in one country taking the ultimate lead.

France – a quest for influence about to be struck down?

Elected in May 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s mandate as President of France has been marked by several social crises, from the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement that started in October 2018, to the wave of protests against police violence, Islamic terror, and the COVID-19 crisis. Despite being considered as a promoter of economic liberalism within his own country, a position that is increasingly being criticized, at the European level, President Macron has been promoting a stronger fiscal integration of the EU. In this regard, he gained important political ground by getting Germany on board with the EU’s €750 billion NextGenerationEU Recovery Fund, considered as the first step towards European debt mutualization. France, supported by French European Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, is also pushing for tech reforms and especially for the EU to become digitally sovereign, ideas that are picking up at EU level. However, some of Macron’s ideas for the EU, such as the development of the European Defence Fund or the Conference of the Future of Europe, have sometimes not amounted to much.

Nevertheless, the consensus between EU officials is that Macron has been the most active of recent French presidents, bringing France to a level of influence (almost) comparable to Germany’s. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaving office in September, there could be an opportunity for France to increase its influence.

Macron will be up for re-election in April 2022. Candidates are only slowly starting to declare themselves, but many already foresee a duel between RN’s Marine Le Pen and Macron. If Le Pen, an adamant euro-sceptic, were to be elected, this would drastically impact the relations and power dynamics at the EU level. The Regional and Departmental elections, taking place in June 2021, will provide a first indication of voting trends, a year prior to the Presidential election.

Dutch elections – another four years of Mark Rutte?

With Dutch parliamentary elections about to take place on 17 March, the question rises if Prime Minister Mark Rutte is soon to form what will already be the fourth coalition government under his command. While currently leading a caretaker crisis-management government after a scandal about false accusations of child benefit fraud, his liberal party VVD is most likely moving towards a comfortable election victory. After first assuming the office of PM in 2010, the question is if Rutte will be able to exploit his seniority in the European Council despite diplomatic damage suffered during negotiations about the COVID-19 recovery fund.

The Netherlands was heavily criticized over its lack of empathy as showcased by its “blatant demands” for structural reforms in Mediterranean countries in exchange for economic support from the NextGenerationEU Recovery Fund. This blow to Dutch diplomacy threatens to further isolate the Netherlands in the European Council, especially after the UK’s departure from the EU. Striking a balance between comforting the domestic – somewhat Eurosceptic – public opinion and taking a constructive leadership role at the EU level has been a challenge for Mark Rutte and will most likely remain to be so. It will be interesting to observe if the VVD and its new coalition partners will be able to overcome the traditionally hesitant Dutch stance towards European integration.

Italy – a technical government to lead the way out of the pandemic

Following an internal crisis for allocation of power, a new government under the command of former ECB President, Mario Draghi, took office on 13 February. For the new government, no agreement was found within the coalition, so the Italian Head of State handed the country to a technical government instead of launching anticipated elections – after less than 2.5 years since the last political elections. Supported by an even stronger coalition, PM Draghi has pledged his mandate to four priorities: health, work, EU Recovery Fund and sustainability, to be delivered by a governing team composed of ministries revived from previous governments.

Most importantly, the Draghi government has taken matters into its own hands by placing the Ministry for European Affairs directly under the supervision of the Prime Ministry. In a time of needed European concertation for both COVID-19 vaccination efforts and effective use of the country-allocated EU Recovery Funds, Draghi is likely to manage the Rome-Brussels affairs by himself. With the hope that this is a sign of a reaffirmed participation of the Italian PM into the European Council, and of a stricter observance of the rules for an efficient spending of EU resources.

The European elections in the Netherlands

Another (national) election?

After the Dutch Senate elections on 27 March, new elections will be held at the end of this month for the European Parliament (EP). The big winner at the Dutch Senate elections was Thierry Baudet of Forum voor Democratie (FvD), a Right-Populist party. Although the Dutch Senate elections are regional elections, it does reflect how the parties could score during the European Parliamentary elections. Therefore, the elections of May also seem to be more focused on national issues than European themes, and especially to what extent Thierry Baudet and his party can break through on the European stage.

Baudet Vs Rutte

The polls differ slightly regarding the precise distribution of seats, but the trend is clear: the fight for votes at the European Parliamentary elections will be between Thierry Baudet, leader of the new Eurosceptic party, and the current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. According to the polls (Politico), Rutte’s VVD would win 2 seats, bringing the total number of seats up to 5. FvD could also enter the European Parliament with 5 seats. Moreover, research from I&O shows that the number of votes would mainly be a matter of turnout as the parties that succeed the most in mobilizing their supporters to vote are going to do well. This is exactly what FvD anticipates too as the same research shows that parties with more outspoken positions, such as FvD, raise the average turnout.

For the political groups at European level, ALDE remains the biggest in the Netherlands – both VVD and D66 are members. FvD indicated that it intends to join the Group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Following the good results in the local Dutch elections, the FvD is set to reinforce the ECR’s ranking. However, the FvD’s potential accession to the ECR will not take place without discussions: ChristenUnie (CU) is also part of the ECR Group and has already stated that they will not support FvD’s intention to join the ECR. The CU even said that they would object to the FvD becoming a member since both parties differ when it comes to priorities for the future of the EU. While the CU is in favour of a reform of the EU, the FvD has long advocated for a ‘Nexit’ – the Netherlands leaving the EU. Still, the CU will most probably have only a limited say in the matter because it is projected to win 1 seat compared to FvD’s 5 seats. Additionally, the FvD has softened its tone recently with regards to a ‘Nexit’, possibly to pave the way for their accession to the ECR Group and because of the negative impact of a possible Brexit. The damage of Brexit could be beneficial for traditional parties like VVD trying to break Baudet’s momentum.

The Dutch Spitzenkandidaten

Although the focus seems to be on the two largest parties in the polls, it should not be forgotten that there are two Dutch politicians running as Spitzenkandidaten to become the next President of the European Commission. The best known is Frans Timmermans, currently First Vice-President of the European Commission. However, when taking a closer look at the polls, Timmermans’ PVDA will lose 1 seat (from 3 to 2) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) at EU-level will also not win the majority of the seats which is the precondition to nominate the next President of the European Commission. The extra visibility that Timmermans receives as a Spitzenkandidat for S&D does not seem to result in any extra profit for him and his party. This is the contrary for the other Spitzenkandidat, Bas Eickhout. Eickhout is a member of the European Parliament for Groenlinks, a party that has been growing in recent years, and, together with Ska Keller, they are the frontrunners for the Greens in the fight for the Presidency for the European Commission. Moreover, his Groenlinks party is likely to win an extra seat in the EP following the elections.

Status quo?

At the end, the number of pro-European and Eurosceptic parties seems to remain more or less stable in the Netherlands. The difference lies mainly in the shifting of votes between the existing parties. The electoral profit of FvD is mainly due to the loss of PVV, which won 4 seats in 2014, but now it seems to lose 2 seats. Also, the electoral profit of the pro-European Green Left, for example, seems to be mainly due to the loss of D66, another pro-European party.