EU Elections: The Final Debate

After Florence (2 May) and Maastricht (29 April), the European parties’ Spitzenkandidaten  debated yesterday in the European Parliament in Brussels. Many anticipated a more animated debate than the previous ones, but at the end the debate once again left most viewers unsatisfied.

One of the few themes on which a clear difference between the candidates’ opinions was visible, was the issue of tackling climate change. Manfred Weber (EPP) stated that the EU should become climate neutral by 2050, but he also warned for the cost of certain measures. Frans Timmermans (S&D) stressed the efforts he and his party, but also the Greens already took. The Greens’ Ska Keller addressed Weber on this theme by confronting him that he voted against ambitious climate objectives in the European Parliament. On top of that, Margrethe Vestager (ALDE) added that current Commissioner for Climate, Arias Cañete “didn’t make amazing work because he is EPP, he did that because he is part of the Commission.” It was clear that Weber and the dominant position of the EPP were under direct attack from the other candidates.

The real surprise of the evening was when Timmermans suggested to form a progressive coalition with the leftist forces in the European Parliament, including the Greens and the European Left Party. With this left coalition, Timmermans wants to break the center right’s monopoly in the European institutions. Still, based on recent polls, Timmermans’ coalition would only have 250 (out of 751) seats in the new European Parliament, clearly not enough to form a majority. In addition, if the UK eventually leaves the EU, the European Parliament will be left with only 705 seats, but the S&D will lose also the seats of the Labour party (while Brexit would not affect the EPP). Timmermans also left some space to work together with the new centrist-liberal Renaissance group, but the question is whether they want to work together with the European Left. All in all, the proposed progressive coalition would find it hard to maintain a majority.

For Margrethe Vestager, it was her first time participating in a debate since Guy Verhofstadt was the face of ALDE in the Florence and Maastricht debates. She missed this opportunity to clarify the new direction of ALDE and to explain what the cooperation with the party of the French President Emmanuel Macron concretely entails. Still, she did make a good impression regarding her own experience as Competition Commissioner.  She said on taxes: “A tax haven is a place where everyone pays their taxes.” A not so subtle hint to the tech companies she attacked the last years.  Also Timmermans reacted that “we should keep asking Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant: Amazon when are you going to start paying taxes?”.

The Brussels debate was the last European-wide Spitzenkandidaten debate in the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections. The lead candidates will now continue their campaigns in the EU Member States until 23 May when the elections will officially start.

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.