The Juncker Commission doesn’t end until Halloween, but the scary season for Europe’s political elite is already underway.
Polls suggest May’s European Parliament election will deliver chaotic results, including unprecedented gains for far-right and populist parties that will force the major pro-EU groups to reach wider than ever to form a majority coalition.
According to POLITICO’s projections, Italy’s largest delegation will come from the far-right League. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is running neck-and-neck for the top spot with President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche.
And now Brexit has added even more volatility to the mix. Britain was meant to have left the European Union by now but may yet find itself participating in the EU election. Should that happen, the entire process will be thrown into disarray with the EU required to reverse a complex reapportionment of Parliament seats, potentially leaving dozens of candidates in limbo, while returning some of the most shrill anti-EU voices to the chamber.
Another prospect raised by the political turmoil in London is that Britain may leave without a deal right in the middle of the election campaign. Who would benefit most in the election from that scenario is anyone’s guess.
The contest for European Commission president is also fraught with uncertainty.
The European People’s Party is sticking firmly to the Spitzenkandidat process — by which the European Council is meant to choose a “lead candidate” from the European Parliament election to run the EU executive — with its nominee Manfred Weber kicking off his campaign in Brussels on Wednesday evening.
The process is intended to make the European election more like a national one, in the sense that a leader from one of the big parties wins the top job. It was first used to select Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014 but it’s highly unclear that it will survive a second election cycle.
That is not least because one of its main backers last time, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), has moved to undermine it, by nominating a slate of seven contenders rather than just one lead candidate. That move has brought them closer to their ally Macron, who has declared his opposition to the Spitzenkandidat process.
The Spitzenkandidat system might begin and end with Jean-Claude Juncker | Thomas Niedermuller/Getty Images
In recent days, the political rhetoric has sharpened. The hand-to-hand combat of the election season is now clearly underway.
“The pro-European forces have to fight together against populism and nationalism,” said Luis Garicano, a Spanish economics professor and a candidate on the Liberals’ slate. “However, I also think that the two incumbent powers, the Socialists and the EPP, have been to some extent responsible for the inability of Europe to solve the problems of citizens that have caused this backlash.”
Garicano, a member of the Ciudadanos party in Spain, laughed at the notion of Weber, a leader of Germany’s Christian Social Union, trying to portray himself as a reformer. “Personally, he doesn’t seem like an agent of change to me,” Garicano said.
Weber is trying to put pressure on others to stick to the Spitzenkandidat process — even though the European Council has insisted it cannot be bound by the system when it nominates a candidate for the Commission presidency later this year.
“It should not be forgotten that most of the European parties and many heads of state and government have supported the Spitzenkandidat principle,” Weber said in a recent interview with the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. “If they suddenly forget this, that would be a huge step backwards for the democracy and participation of voters in Europe.”
Weber faces uncertainty over whether the EPP’s leaders in governments around Europe will stand by him, even if — as seems almost certain — he emerges as the leader of the largest bloc in the next Parliament. Weber is shadowed by rumors that he will be replaced by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.
The French former minister and two-time European commissioner has been popping up regularly with speeches and statements to outline a vision for Europe that goes far beyond his Brexit remit.
Liberals and Socialists could seek to form an alliance to block Weber’s candidacy, potentially leaving Barnier as a compromise alternative.
With nearly all of the EU’s top jobs coming open later this year — not just Commission president but also president of the Council, president of the Parliament, president of the European Central Bank, and the high representative for foreign affairs — many of the big decisions will be influenced by the election but ultimately determined by horse-trading among power brokers.
Frans Timmermans, the nominee of the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES), is not even guaranteed a consolation prize given his party’s weak standing in his home country of the Netherlands. His future depends on Prime Minister Mark Rutte staying in power and remaining committed to what appears to be a plan to send Timmermans back to Brussels as the Dutch commissioner despite their different party affiliations.
Timmermans took a shot at Weber on Wednesday as the election campaign intruded into the European Commission’s midday news conference. His remarks came after he was asked about Weber’s assertion that the Commission has been tougher on rule of law in Hungary — ruled by an EPP government — than Romania, which is run by Social Democrats.
“I can understand the feeling of embarrassment of Mr. Weber after all these discussions about Hungary,” Timmermans said, making reference to Weber’s previous close relationship with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
The negotiations over the top jobs are almost bound to be tortuous as leaders try to achieve a balance among various political groups and geographical regions. Almost two months before the election, talks on the top posts are already under way.
The Irish government said that Prime Minister Leo Varadkar would raise “the appointment of a new European Commission, Council president and high representative” in discussions with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week.
“When it comes to choosing people for these top jobs, there is a playoff between the president of the Commission and now the vice president, high representative, president of the European Parliament, and other positions,” said Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to the EU.
“The balances are extremely complex. There’s the right-left balance, but there’s also the east-west balance, which is probably even more important. There’s also the male-female balance. I don’t think it will be acceptable in this day and age not to have a woman in one of the top jobs. And then there’s large vs. small. For example, you can’t have another Luxembourger as president of the Commission,” he said.
“With all of those factors playing in,” McDonagh said, “the outcome may well be unsure right up until the last minute. It’s not just the selection for one job. It’s the selection for a series of jobs.”
Even the bloc’s most powerful national leaders can find their usual muscle is insufficient when it comes to swaying the outcome of deliberations over top EU posts — as evidenced in 2014 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister David Carmeron failed in their initial bid to block Juncker’s candidacy.
This time, Merkel, who eventually came around to support Juncker, seems to be more willing to go along with the Spitzenkandidat process. Privately, she has expressed support for Weber, both in terms of keeping the Commission presidency in the control of her EPP political family, but also for installing the first German as the boss of the Berlaymont since Walter Hallstein served as the Commission’s first president from 1958 to 1967.
But Macron, who upended French party politics by winning his own election as an independent in 2017, is fiercely opposed to the Spitzenkandidat system, with its links to traditional parties. That opposition gives Macron further incentive to block Weber’s path, in addition to the traditional French reluctance to cede too much power to Germany.
Margrethe Vestager may be pushed forward by French President Emmanuel Macron as a possible Spitzenkandidat | Diarmud Greene/Web summit via Getty Images
Rumors have swirled for months that Macron will push either for Margrethe Vestager, the Danish liberal who is the current European commissioner for competition, or for Barnier, who is a long-standing member of the EPP, but has the advantage to Macron of being French.
Meanwhile, polls and projections show the strong rise of anti-EU parties creating a situation in which the mainstream groups will be forced to reach for smaller partners in order to form a majority coalition, potentially giving unprecedented leverage to the Greens and other smaller political families.
For some players, the unfolding competition between pro-EU and Euroskeptic forces is the preeminent theme of 2019, potentially marking a clear shift on the power dynamics within the bloc.
“The anti-EU camp is organized in a much more clear way and with clearer objectives than in 2014,” a Green official said. “People are not really interested in the Spitzenkandidat. They are interested in the ‘good vs. bad’ power dynamics.”