EU Elections 2019: Brussels‘ Game of Thrones Has Just Begun. 10.4.2019

By Michael Trinkwalder

On May 26th the three-day election marathon for the 751 seats in the European Parliament (EP) finally came to an end, but the continent is still struggling to process its conflicting results: although far-right populist parties managed to gain ground, they fell far short of projections that saw them achieve one-third or more of all seats in the parliament. [1] Instead, it was Europe’s Green and Liberal parties that became the main beneficiaries of a record turnout.[ 2] In Greece, the embattled left-wing government has already called for snap-elections after its disastrous showing, an example that Italy and even Germany might soon to follow. [3] However, if there is one trend that has transcended national borders, it is the increasing fragmentation of the political system.

For the first time since 1979, the informal coalition of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) has lost control of the European Parliament. This has major ramifications for the election of the next European Commission President, the powerful executive body of the European Union (EU). Since it was primarily the commanding majority of those two parties that allowed the EP to force Europe’s national leaders to accept the introduction of the so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” or lead-candidate system in 2014. [4] According to the system, each pan-European party group would select a lead-candidate to campaign for the EU’s top job, with the EP pledging to refuse any candidate that had not previously run as a Spitzenkandidat in the elections.

This time the European Council, which consists of the EU’s national leaders, has made it clear that they won’t be bound by the lead-candidate system. [5] Yet, at the same time, the majority of the EP still backs the system. [6] The only thing the EU treaties have to say on this subject is that the European Council must take the elections “into account” when it proposes a candidate, which the European Parliament must then either elect or reject. Thus, there is a very real possibility that the EU institutions might be heading for a lengthy fight over who gets to determine the President of the European Commission. So, let’s take a closer look at the candidates and parties that are set to dominate the coming discussion.

First up is the center-right EPP (178 seats) with its German lead-candidate Manfred Weber as the nominal victor of the elections. In spite of substantial losses, the EPP is still the largest party-group in the new European Parliament. However, in light of the fact that Weber has led the EPP to one of the worst electoral results in its history, even he himself is reluctant to claim victory. Although the 46-year-old German has a reputation as an able consensus-builder and backroom negotiator, his lackluster campaign left even most German voters unaware of his existence. [7] In fact, according to a post-election survey, almost 60 percent of Germans do not want Weber to become the next Commission President. [8] What is even worse from the perspective of national leaders is that he has never held any kind of executive office, raising serious doubts about his suitability for the bloc’s top job. Should his candidacy fail the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier is already positioning himself as a potential compromise candidate. [9]

Next is the center-left S&D (152 seats) with its Dutch lead candidate Frans Timmermans, which came in second place in the elections. Having just taken an even worse electoral drubbing than the EPP, Timmermans chances would appear to be rather slim. However, what the S&D lacks in electoral strength, the polyglot Timmermans hopes to make-up through finding common ground with the Liberal, Green, and Leftist groups. Additionally, as a former minister of foreign affairs and current vice-president in the European Commission, he brings exactly the kind of executive experience to the table that Weber is lacking. Yet, even if Timmermans were to succeed in uniting all Liberals, Greens, and Leftists behind him, he would still fall short of a majority.

This brings us to the centrist Alliance of the Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), the only big winner among the three largest groups in the EP. Strengthened by new additions like French President Macron’s LREM, ALDE (110) increased its size by nearly a third and could grow still larger. [10] Unlike the other two party-groups ALDE did not nominate one lead-candidate but seven, to protest against the Spitzenkandidaten system that they say unfairly favors the larger party-groups. [11] In reality, there is only one name on the ALDE list that is a serious contender for the Commission Presidency: Danish EU Competition Commissioner Margarete Vestager. Who has made her mark on the European scene by imposing multi-billion Dollar fines for anti-trust and tax violation against large multi-national companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon. [12] This has also made her the most popular member of the current European Commission. [13]

Due to the fragmented balance of power in the European Parliament and Council (9 EPP members, 9 Liberals and 5 Socialists), only a coalition that includes at least the EPP, S&D as well as ALDE and possibly also the Greens can hope to command a majority. So, where does that leave the three candidates? Manfred Weber enjoys at best lukewarm support among many of the national leaders from the EPP, and there seems to be a strong front forming against his candidacy in the European Council. [14] While Frans Timmermans does not have to overcome nearly the same level of antipathy, he is unlikely to win the support of the EPP and is unpopular among governments in Eastern Europe. This not only puts ALDE in the position of king-maker but quite possibly also sets-up Margarete Vestager as an acceptable compromise candidate to both EPP and S&D leaders.

However, EU negotiations are rarely so straightforward, particularly since the offices of the High Representative of the EU for Foreign and Security Policy as well as the Presidency of the European Council and Parliament are all up for grabs. All of which must be filled according to a carefully calibrated balance between geographic, party and gender considerations. At the moment only one thing seems clear, the city of Brussels can look forward to a Byzantine display of horse-trading and back-room deals against which the scheming on Game of Thrones will pale in comparison. Nevertheless, with the contentious EU budget negotiations, Brexit and potentially also a trade war with the US all coming up in the fall, the new Commission President better get off to a running start – whomever it may be.

Michael Trinkwalder is a graduate student at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt where he is pursuing a M.A. in International Relations.