The Scramble for Power

How the battle for positions is set against the EU’s supranational spirit

By Moritz Osterhuber 

Citizens cast their ballot for their European representatives almost three weeks ago, but the election night frenzy of exit polls and press conferences was followed by a peculiar calm after the storm. There hasn’t been much clarity on a way forward, let alone progress, when it comes to forming a new European leadership. Meanwhile, voters can easily feel disaffected or excluded from the process as unlike in most national contexts, media coverage, and therefore public pressure, is low and institutional arrangements to form a government are blurry at best. It is no wonder then that potential outcomes are plentiful, information scarce and decision-making inscrutable. Post-election European politics seem to be bound by the actors’ interests and negotiation strategies alone. There is however a significant caveat to the current state of affairs. Whilst names of former and current Premiers as alternatives to the Spitzenkandidatencirculate as successors to Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission Presidency, the EU risks losing the momentum of the highest election turnout in 20 years. Irrespective of seniority and skill, it will be hard to explain to voters why someone who hasn’t campaigned, presented a platform or stood in the elections should lead the Commission, represent the EU and co-shape its legislative agenda. Worse still, the current scramble for EU top positions and the behind-closed-doors negotiations it entails underscores arguments of the EU’s half-hearted commitment to democracy cloaked by overly complex and opaque procedures.


The scramble for power shaped by national vanity and party group aspirations is an expression of the EU’s traditional fault line between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism, that is between national prerogative and common EU authority. If it weren’t for the power of the European Council, Parliament would stand before undoubtedly cumbersome but straightforward deliberations for a new leadership akin to national coalition-building where clout amongthe different actors is distributed according to election results. As it stands now however, power balances entirely unrelated to last month’s election play a significant role since the European Council as the EU’s prime intergovernmental body and its heads of state or government nominate Commissioners and sign off on the designated President. The issue here is that Art. 17(7) of the Treaty on European Union stipulates that “[t]aking into account the elections to the European Parliament [...], the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission”. Of course, any new College of Commissioners including its President is subject to a “vote of consent” in Parliament and are later accountable to MEPs, but even though Parliament holds these oversight powers, the idea that MS governments determined by national elections based on national issues have a decisive say in the formation of the Commission is inimical to European supranationalism and transnational democracy. 


The reality however is thatAlde, S&D and the EPP all appointed interlocutorsin the Council to mediate, find common ground and eventually help sketching out a compromise with the likes of Macron, Merkel and Sanchez who remain at the centre of the negotiations. This is particularly concerning for the Greens’ prospect of getting a seat at the executive table as they currently lack representation at the helm of EU governments and therefore also in the Council. Donald Tuskput further (time) pressure on Parliament by declaring the upcoming summit on June 27th to be the final deadline fora viable candidate to be put forward by party groups. The implied message is that after this date EU leaders will take over the task of choosing the EU’s new leadership.Such a move would almost invariably mean a continuation of a tug of war between intergovernmental and supranational institutions. The likely losers of this confrontation are transparency and democracy. But how did it come to this situation?


A Diversified Party Spectrum in Parliament  

A key reason for the current stalemate is a broadened party spectrum and an altered balance of power in the Parliament. The new formation complicates coalition-building and seems to impede an agreement on a majority-supported candidate for Commission President. Most notably, the Greens/EFA (69 seats) registered unprecedented support in Finland, the United Kingdom and Germany and have an equally grand claim to leadership as the soon-to-be reconstituted Alde that was propelled to Europe’s top parties by French powerhouse La République en Marche.Together with the conservative ECR (68 seats), these party groups narrowed the gap to the traditional heavyweights S&D (155 seats) and EPP (179 seats), who cannot anymore form a majority of 376 seats, let alone a more comfortable one, on their own. Facing a stronger, better-organised euro-sceptic front that picked up momentum particularly in France and Italy, Parliament needs to come up with a pro-European coalition that accommodates interests from the EPP almost all the way to the left. Correspondingly, the EPP’s candidate-in-waiting Manfred Weber announced that his party group is “simply ready to start with a very compromise-oriented style”, something which proved more difficult than in 2014.But fractures that currently complicate consensus-oriented coalition-building rallied behind one common candidate lie deeper.


The Spitzenkandidaten  

A second intergovernmental aspect that inhibits straightforward, democratic deliberations around EU leadership is the weakness of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten model. Before the European Elections in 2014, Parliament forced a commitment upon the European Council to only consider candidates for the Commission Presidency that had been named lead candidates (Spitzenkandidaten) by their party groups. Designed to foster pan-European campaigns and debates, it is the attempt to bolster democratic legitimacy and transparencyalso in regards to thepost-election determination of European leadership. The Spitzenkandidatenare adecidedly supranational element set against intergovernmental influence of the Council inthe formation of the European Commission. While in 2014 the then-SpitzenkandidatenJean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz came to the informal but binding understanding that the losing contender would support the other as Commission President, matters are more complex this time around with more players in the arena. None of the stakeholders in Parliament seems willing to back the relative winner Manfred Weber, while the EPP, S&D, Greens & Alde all have reason to see the election outcome as confirming their claims to power. The stalemate in various ways directly challenges the Spitzenkandidaten procedure as such.


The Greens and Alde did not bother nominating a lead candidate to begin with. Thereby, theyaim to project their criticism of  the Parliament’s rejection of transnational lists in early 2018. They say that anyone capable of forming a majority in the Parliament is eligible for the job, opening the race for a whole array of candidates including former heads of state or government. The conservative EPP, for their part, in the person of Vice Chair Esther de Lange immediately claimed the leading role in the upcoming negotiations. With Merkel’s support, whose domestic CDU lost ground but still scratched the 29% mark with the help of its sister party CSU, the EPP clearly has its eyes on making Weber the Commission President. Merkel, too, seems to have Weber’s back, dismissing Emmanuel Macron’s thinly veiled criticism that Weber would not be up for the job for a lack of ‘experience’ as a high-level executive. Merkel simply stated that “we should not go down that path”. Add Udo Bullmann of the S&D who declared that the only candidate capable of forming a ‘progressive majority’ would be their very own Frans Timmermans, and you get a formidable post-electionimpasse. Of course, one might argue this is all rethorics and setting anchors in negotiations but with a healthy commitment to the Spitzenkandidatenmodel this struggle for power would not be necessary and instead settled by the popular will as reflected in Parliament. 


If it comes to a stalemate between the S&D’s Frans Timmermans and the EPP’s Manfred Weber with neither side yielding any ground on the question of the Commission Presidency, the candidatemost likely to step up are the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the Danish liberal Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. Barnier, who reportedly got the grudging blessing of Macron, fought a private campaign in Weber’s wake and seems to hope that the united front he maintained during Brexit deliberations affords him the EU’s top job. However, given that parliament already pledged to only support one of the Spitzenkandidaten, Barnier, Vestager and other hopefuls face an uphill battle at best. An intransigent Parliament that fights for the Spitzenkandidatenprocedure and the implied promise of a full-fledged transnational democracy might cause a standoff with the Council after the Summit on June 27th. 


A Battle for the Soul 

A third intergovernmental aspect of the elections that brought us to where we are today is the way party groups on a European level work. Despite the relative success of the Spitzenkandidaten(both Timmermans and Webercarried their platforms to various Member States), campaigns are still predominantly fought in a national context and results are later aggregated in ideologically diverse European party groups. Political designations such as ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ do not mean the same in all Member States, in fact far from it, and are always questions of degree. This means that European party groups are almost constantly forced to confront and re-define their boundaries when new potential partners emergeor existing ones change their course. This has perhaps never been more conspicuous than now. Borrowing Joe Biden’s words, multiple party groups are engaged in a ‘battle for their soul’. The EPP and the S&D are at a crossroads determining whether Hungarian Fidesz (EPP) and the Romanian Social Democrats (S&D) still conform to their ideas about democracy and the rule of law. In a similar vein, conservatives and reformists of the ECR need to decide whether they turn a hesitant flirt with Orban’s renegade Fidesz party into something more durable. Further left, the new Aldeis prepared to drop its liberal label to make membership more palatable for the new French powerhouse La République en Marche. On election night Guy Verhofstadt, one of the party’s frontrunners, spoke of a new centrist ‘reform-driven’ pro-European force - vague on ideology but committed to an ‘ambitious Europe’ as it were. Together with the Save Romania Union,the new Alde holds an unprecedented 108 seats and is indeed a close-to-indispensable partner in shaping the new Commission. As party groups hastily redefine their ideological baseline, core policy interests and distinctions between them become increasingly blurred, complicating the exercise of finding common ground and a common candidate, let alone put forward a shared narrative discernible for EU citizens. 


The Scramble for Power

The solution for the power and leadership impasse might just lay in horse trading. The Presidency of the Parliament and the vacant post of Council President after Tusk leaves office later this year might not only serve as gold-plated compensation for the king- or queenmaker but may also appease a major party group at the shorter end of an eventual compromise. The same is true for the post of the High Representative left vacant by Federica Mogherini and might even apply to the designated successor of ECB President Mario Draghi. Economists stress that the ECB’s mandated independence prescribes an apolitical nominee, yet, the fact that the Council holds the right to appoint and that prestigious jobs are scarce means that any candidate likely has some political merit. Current hopefuls are François Villeroy de Galhau and Jens Weidmann; those currently in the second row are Benoît Cœuré, Claudia Buch and, notably, Erkki Liitanen, a likely candidate if a Franco-German standoff stalls the negotiations. 



In other words, the scramble for Europe’s most prestigious positions is in full swing. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez met with Emmanuel Macron on Monday after the elections seeking a deal that would propel a Spaniard to one of the EU’s top positions. The hottest contender is veteran statesman and current Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who is poised to become the Union’s next High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. A day later, however, Pedro Sanchez also met with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who delivered a well-crafted rebuttal of Trump’s political agenda on Friday (insert link), suggesting Sanchez might pursue a two-tiered approach of supporting either Michel Barnier or Manfred Weber, depending on who gives him what he wants. In the current environment finding four (five) suitable candidates is akin to squaring the circle. The new European leadership ought to be balanced on geography, party affiliation and gender, meaning that the EPP, S&D, Greens and Alde likely all want their share as do Member States in Western, Central and Southern Europe. Withal, the entire debate on personnel in Brussels shows that a supranational spirit is still subordinate to traditional national power politics in which new players claim their share whilst the traditional top dogs Germany and France are equally unlikely to loosen their grip. 


Article 17 TEU stipulates that the Commission “shall promote the general interest of the Union”. Commissioners including the President are therefore neither bound by nor answerable to purely nationalinterests. Even so, the 28 Commissioners still hold 28 different passports, which reflects national recalcitrance to accept a more efficientand supranational European executive table as foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty. Nation states are similarly reluctant to leave the formation of the Commission to the power relations in the Parliament that are directly determined by the will of some 426 eligible European voters. The handling of the situation after last month’s elections demonstrates that commitment to true European transnational democracy is limited. The bottom line is that large parts of the overly complicated, prone-to-stalemate and behind-closed-doors elements in finding a new EU leadership can be attributed to persisting intergovernmental elements in the European Union.