European Council still at odds over next Commission president and other EU leaders

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at last Thursday’s European Council meeting
Tuesday, June 25, 2019

On Thursday, the European Council, the heads of state or government of the 28 member states of the European Union, met over dinner, as they had on May 28 immediately after the elections for the European Parliament, to discuss possible candidates and perhaps select their nominee for president of the European Commission as well as their choices for High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, president of the European Central Bank and president of the European Council. And as happened on May 28, the meeting extended into the early morning hours of the next day and concluded without a decision in regard to any of the positions, largely because the members are still at odds, as they were on May 28, over who they will nominate to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the Commission.

The new European Parliament will convene on July 2 and is tasked by the EU treaties with approving or rejecting the European Council’s nominee for Commission president. The other three leaders are chosen by the European Council acting by “qualified majority,” which is defined as at least 55 per cent of the members, comprising at least 15 members representing states that together have at least 65 per cent of the EU population. The new Commission president, High Representative, and ECB president will take office Nov. 1. The new European Council president will take office Dec. 1.

Five years ago, the party groups in the European Parliament, believing that, although the treaties give it the power to appoint the Commission president after the European Council has nominated a candidate, the Council had in effect preempted its appointment power, and believing also that personalizing the EP elections might increase public interest and reverse the decline in turnout that had occurred in each successive election since the first in 1979, came up with the idea of each party group naming a spitzenkandidat – a lead candidate who would represent the party group in the election campaign and would, if the party group placed first in the election, become the Commission president.

The European Council objected to the idea since Article 17 of the treaties assigns the power to nominate the Commission president to the European Council. But in 2014, the European Peoples Party (EPP) group, which includes most of the Christian Democratic and center-right conservative parties in the EU and which has won the largest number of seats in the Parliament in every election since 1994, chose Juncker as its spitzenkandidat. He was Luxembourg’s minister of finance for 20 years, from 1989 to 2009, prime minister for 18 years, from 1995 to 2013, and president of the Eurogroup for eight years, from 2005 to 2013. Even skeptics of the concept had to acknowledge he was eminently qualified for the position. Nevertheless, the European Council made it clear it objected to the presumption that in the future it would nominate the spitzenkandidat of the leading party group for Commission president. It reiterated that position last year before the party groups chose their lead candidates for last month’s election, and European Council President Donald Tusk made it clear again, both after the meeting on May 28 and after last Thursday’s meeting, that there would be no “automaticity” – that while being a spitzenkandidat would not preclude an individual from becoming Commission president, it wouldn’t automatically lead to his or her nomination in the event the person’s party group placed first in the election.

In preparing for last month’s election, the EPP group chose Manfred Weber, an MEP for the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and the EPP leader in the Parliament since 2014, as its spitzenkandidat. Weber has spent his political career as an MEP and has no experience in either government or the Commission, and while Chancellor Angela Merkel, until recently the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the head of a coalition government that includes the CSU, steadfastly supported him, a number of leaders objected his candidacy on the grounds of his lack of experience in government and the Commission.

Weber’s candidacy was further complicated by the outcome of last month’s election. Until now, the two largest groups of parties in the European Parliament – the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D), which includes the Socialist, Social Democratic and Labor parties, and the EPP – have always had a majority in the Parliament. But in the election, both party groups lost seats and, together, lost their majority in the Parliament that will convene on July 2. The S&D group lost 38 seats, dropping from the 191 seats it won in 2014 to the 153 it won last month, and the EPP lost 39 seats, dropping from the 221 it won in 2014 to 182. As a result, with 335 seats, the two groups are 41 seats short of a majority in the 751-seat Parliament – which of course means they can’t by themselves approve or reject a European Council nominee for Commission president and would need the agreement of at least one additional party group.

In contrast to the erosion of strength for the two groups that have for so long constituted a political duopoly in the Parliament, three other party groups picked up a substantial number of additional seats in last month’s election. Perhaps most significantly in terms of how the next Parliament will operate, a new party group, Renew Europe, formed two weeks ago as the successor to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and which includes some of the leading centrist liberal parties in the EU – for example, the British Liberal Democrats, the Spanish Citizens (Ciudadanos), the Dutch VVD, the German FDP and, perhaps most importantly, President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche! (LREM) and more than 30 others – won 108 seats, a gain of 41. Another new group, Identity and Democracy, also formed two weeks ago as the successor to the Europe of Nations and Freedom group and which includes some of the leading populist Eurosceptic and xenophobic parties – for example, the Italian Lega, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Danish Peoples Party (DF), the Belgian Vlaams Belang, the Finns, and a few others – won 73 seats, a gain of 37. And the Greens/Europe Free Alliance group won 75 seats, a gain of 25. Any of those three groups could, at least in theory, provide a majority in the Parliament for a nominee for the Commission presidency supported by the S&D and EPP, although they clearly would neither solicit nor accept the support of the I&D group.  

In discussing possible nominees for the Commission presidency at the May 28 meeting of the European Council, Macron expressed his strong opposition to Weber’s candidacy and his strong support for Michel Barnier, a former French minister of the environment, minister of foreign affairs, MEP, vice president of the EPP, Commissioner for Regional Policy, Commissioner for the Internal Market and Financial Services, and currently the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. While opposed in principle to the spitzenkandidaten idea, he nevertheless made it clear that both Frans Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister and the current First Vice President of the Commission and Commissioner for Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations and Rule of Law, and spitzenkandidat of the S&D group, and Margarethe Vestager, a Danish Social Liberal, former minister of economic affairs, current Commissioner for Competition, and co-leader of the ALDE’s “Team Europe” in the EP election campaign – the group dispensed with a single spitzenkandidat – were also strong candidates. Merkel continued to support Weber and at the meeting even drew a parallel between Weber’s relative lack of experience in government and her own situation earlier in her career. But her support was muted, in part because a number of the other EPP leaders spoke on his behalf and also, perhaps, because she realized his appointment as Commission president would undoubtedly preclude consideration of Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann as Mario Draghi’s successor as president of the European Central Bank.  

In the run-up to last Thursday’s meeting, the national leaders and the leaders of the party groups in the new Parliament consulted among themselves and on Thursday morning the leaders of the S&D and Renew Europe groups told Weber they would not vote for him. At Thursday’s meeting, after Tusk presented a short list of possible candidates for the positions, the leaders went around the table, expressing their support for some and, in some instances, lack thereof for others. Macron continued to support Barnier and, with the assistance of Pedro Sánchez of Spain, also reiterated his support of Timmermans and Vestager. Merkel, with the support of other EPP leaders, continued to support Weber and made it clear, moreover, that if he were rejected, none of the spitzenkandidaten would be nominated. Eventually, the meeting broke up just before 2 a.m. on Friday without a nominee for Commission president and with little progress on the other positions.

Leaving the meeting, Macron said, “It is clear there is not a majority around the Council table – in the same way that it became clear this morning that there is not a majority [in the Parliament] for Weber…The three spitzenkandidaten, the three names, were tested by Donald Tusk and he considered that they had found no majority on either of these three names.” In his remarks after the meeting, Tusk said, “The European Council had a full discussion of nominations taking into account my consultations and statements made within the European Parliament. There was not a majority on any candidate. The European Council agreed that there needs to be a package reflecting the diversity of the EU. We will meet again on 30th June.” In the meantime, Macron, Merkel, Tusk and several other EU leaders will attend the G20 meeting in Osaka. Perhaps there, they will be able to reach a preliminary agreement on a nominee for Commission president and a set of names for the other leadership positions that reflect the full diversity of the EU in regard to geography, size, gender, and political affiliation.

Europe’s attention over the past several days has been focused elsewhere – on the competition between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the leadership of the British Conservative Party, Sunday’s protest by more than 200,000 people in Prague demanding the resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, and also on Sunday the remarkable victory of Ekrem İmamoğlu in the repeat election for mayor of Istanbul. But next Sunday, attention will turn to Brussels as the European Council meets once again in its thus far elusive quest for agreement on a nominee for Commission president and the other leadership positions.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.