European Council takes stock of Parliament election, starts selection of new EU leaders

Margrethe Vestager, Frans Timmermans and Manfred Weber: Possible candidates for European Commission President
Thursday, May 30, 2019

On Tuesday evening, the European Council, the heads of state or government of the 28 member states of the European Union, met for an informal dinner in Brussels to discuss the outcome of the election, conducted from last Thursday through Sunday, of the European Parliament and start the process of nominating the new heads of the EU institutions – specifically, the new president of the European Commission, new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and new president of the European Central Bank, all of whom will take office on Nov. 1, and the new president of the European Council, who will take office on Dec. 1. The Council aims to nominate the new leaders at its meeting on June 20-21.

The increase in voter turnout. As Tusk said in his press conference after the dinner, one of the results of the election the leaders welcomed was the increase in the overall rate of turnout in the election. Elections of members of the European Parliament have been conducted every five years since 1979, and in each election since then the aggregate rate of turnout was less than the rate in the previous election, raising concerns about the apparently-increasing disinterest of its citizens in and/or disaffection from the institutions of the EU and the diminishing electoral accountability of its institutions. But in the recent election, the aggregate rate increased, from 42.6 per cent in 2014 to 51 per cent – higher than in any of the four European Parliament elections since 1994.

While the aggregate rate of turnout, although higher, was still quite low, compared with most national elections, and while the rate dropped in several states – Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal – a number of states experienced dramatic increases. In Poland, spurred by the polarization between the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the Civic Platform-based opposition, turnout increased from 23.8 per cent in 2014 to 45.7 per cent. And in Spain, building on the mobilization of the electorate in the recent national election, turnout increased from 43.8 per cent to 64.3 per cent. Other member states with double-digit increases in turnout were the Czech Republic, from 18.2 per cent to 28.7 per cent; Hungary, from 29.0 per cent to 43.4 per cent; Romania, from 32.4 per cent to 51.1 per cent; Austria, from 45.4 per cent to 59.8 per cent; and Germany, from 48.1 per cent to 61.4 per cent.

The end of the Center Left-Center Right majority. The leaders, Tusk said, also noted the changing political composition of the Parliament and, specifically, the fact that for the first time the two largest groups of parties – the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats, which includes the Socialist, Social Democratic and Labor parties, and the European People’s Party, which includes the Christian Democratic and most Conservative parties – together won’t have a majority in the new Parliament. The parties in the S&D group lost 36 seats, dropping from 189 to 153 seats, and the parties in the EPP lost 38 seats, dropping from 217 to 179 seats. Together, they are 44 seats short of a majority in the 751-seat Parliament.

There were center-left parties in the S&D group that did well – most notably, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) that, building on its vote of 28.7 per cent in the April national election, won 32.8 per cent, compared with 23 per cent in the EP election five years ago. And the Dutch Labor Party (PvdA), building on the personal support for Frans Timmermans, the former foreign minister, current First Vice President of the European Commission and spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) of the S&D group, also did well, winning 18.9 per cent, twice its share of the vote five years ago and more than three times its vote in the 2017 national election. But the S&D parties in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom all lost significant shares of the vote – and seats. The German SPD won only 15.8 per cent of the vote, compared with the 27.3 per cent it won in the 2014 EP election and the 20.5 per cent it won in the Sept. 2017 national election. The French Socialists won only 6.2 per cent, compared with the 14 per cent they won in the 2014 EP election and the 7.4 per cent they won in the first round of the 2017 national election. The Italian Democrats won 22.7 per cent, a few points better than the 18.8 they won in the Mar. 2018 national election but little more than half of the 40.8 per cent they won in the EP election five years ago. And the British Labor Party won only 13.7 per cent, compared with the 24.4 per cent it won in the EP election five years ago and little more than one-third of the 40 per cent it won in the June 2017 national election.

Like the center-left group, the center-right EPP had some successes in the recent EP election. For example, the Austrian ÖVP, led by 32-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, won 34.6 per cent of the vote, compared with 27 per cent in the 2014 EP election and 31.5 per cent in the Oct. 2017 national election. Unfortunately for Kurz, the day after the election he lost a vote of no confidence in the Austrian parliament as a result of the scandal that erupted involving former Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right FPÖ. And in Ireland, Fine Gael, the party of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, won 29.6 per cent of the vote, compared with 22.3 per cent in 2014. But other EPP parties did not fare as well. For example, whereas in France the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) won 20.8 per cent in the 2014 EP election and, renamed the Republicans, won 15.8 per cent in the first round of the 2017 national election, the Republicans won only 8.5 per cent in this year’s EP election. In Italy, Forza Italia, which won 16.8 per cent in the 2014 EP election and 14 per cent in the 2018 national election, won only 8.8 per cent in this year’s EP election. In Spain, while the People’s Party improved on its performance in the April national election, winning 20.1 per cent, that was still well below the 26.1 per cent it won in the 2014 EP election. And the German CDU-CSU, which won 35.4 per cent in the 2014 EP election and 32.9 per cent in the Sept. 2017 national election, won only 28.9 per cent in this year’s EP election – despite the fact that Manfred Weber, a CSU MEP and, since 2014, the leader of the EPP in the European Parliament, was the EPP’s spitzenkandidat, meaning its lead candidate in the election and candidate for president of the Commission.

Gains for the Liberal and Green Parties. In contrast to the loss of votes and seats experienced by the two party groups that, until now, have controlled a majority in the Parliament, both the Liberal and the Green party groups gained votes and seats. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, joined by French President Emmanuel Macron’s “Renaissance” list (ALDE&R), won 105 seats, 37 more than the ALDE parties won in 2014. And the Green parties won 69 seats, 18 more than the 51 they now hold. In all likelihood, the ALDE&R, with its 105 seats, will join the S&D and EPP in a three-group coalition in the Parliament – unless, of course, the S&D and EPP are able to negotiate a more advantageous arrangement with the Greens.

A large portion of the increase in Liberal seats resulted from the vote for Macron’s “Renaissance” coalition, which included La République En Marche!, the party he created in 2016, the Mouvement Démocrate, and two smaller parties. In the 2014 EP election, MoDem and a smaller party won 9.9 per cent and 7 seats. In this year’s election, the “Renaissance” coalition won 22.4 per cent of the vote and 23 seats. It should be noted, however, that LREM won 28.2 per cent and MoDem 4.1 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 legislative election that followed soon after the presidential election, so what might look like a significant gain in votes and seats from the perspective of the 2014 and 2019 EP elections was, from the perspective of French politics and the 2017 national election, a significant loss of nearly 10 percentage points – hardly surprising given the months-long anti-Macron protests of the gilets jaunes this past winter and early spring.

There were other Liberal parties, however, that not only did well in comparison with the previous EP election but also did well compared with the previous national election. For example, the British Liberal Democrats, who won 6.6 per cent of the vote in the 2014 EP election and 7.4 per cent in the June 2017 national election, won 19.8 per cent of the vote and 16 seats in last Thursday’s election. Those 16 MEPs won’t, of course, remain as members of the European Parliament if the UK actually leaves the EU. But for the time being, at least, they add to the ALDE&R group.

Not all of the Liberal parties increased their vote and number of MEPs in the recent election. For example, the Dutch Democraten 66 saw their share of the vote drop from 15.5 per cent in 2014 to 7 per cent last Thursday. Likewise, the two Belgian parties in the ALDE&R group – the Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten and the Mouvement Reformateur – saw their combined vote drop by nearly six percentage points. But there were others that picked up some support, such as the Dutch VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the two Danish parties that belong to the ALDE – the Venstre and the Radikale Venstre.  

Not surprisingly, given the salience of climate change and other environmental issues, the Green parties did well across the EU. But several performances stood out:  In Ireland, the Greens won 11.4 per cent, compared with 4.9 per cent in the 2014 EP election. In Belgium, the regionally-based Ecolo and Green parties won 15 per cent of the vote, compared with 11 per cent in 2014. In the Netherlands, the Green Left won 10.9 per cent of the vote, compared with 7 per cent in 2014. And in the UK, the Greens won 11.8 per cent of the vote – more than the Conservatives – compared with 6.9 per cent in the 2014 EP election and 1.6 per cent in the 2017 national election. But the most dramatic victory for the Greens undoubtedly came in Germany, where they won 20.5 per cent of the vote – almost double their vote in the 2014 EP election (10.7 per cent), more than twice their vote in the 2017 national election (8.9 per cent), and almost 5 percentage points more than what the SPD won on Sunday.

Mixed results for the euroskeptic parties.  Unlike the situation in the 2014 EP election, when it seemed that every euroskeptic and xenophobic populist party did well, the results in this year’s election were mixed. Some – most notably, the Italian Lega led by Matteo Salvini, the new Brexit party started only a few months ago by Nigel Farage, the Polish Law and Justice party (PiS), and Marine LePen’s Rassemblement National – did well, some of them very well. The Lega, for example, won 34.3 per cent of the vote, double the vote it won in last year’s national election. The Brexit party won 30.8 per cent, several percentage points less than most polls had predicted in the run-up to last Thursday’s election but nevertheless several percentage points above the 26.6 per cent the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won in the 2014 EP election. Law and Justice won 45.4 per cent, a substantial increase over the 31.8 per cent it won in the 2014 EP election. And while LePen’s RN, which won 23.3 per cent, did not quite match the 24.9 per cent its predecessor, the Front National, won in 2014, it did increase its share of the vote by 10 percentage points over its performance in the first round of the 2017 legislative election (although that election came immediately after Macron had defeated Le Pen in the presidential election). Meanwhile, in Belgium, the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) which won 4.3 per cent in the 2014 EP election, won 11.6 per cent in this year’s election. And in the Netherlands, the Forum for Democracy (FvD), created in 2016 and headed by Thierry Baudet, which won only 1.8 per cent in the 2017 national election, won 10.9 per cent in this year’s election.

But other euroskeptic parties did not do so well. The Austrian FPÖ, which won 19.7 per cent in 2014, won 17.2 per cent. The German AfD, which won 7 per cent in 2014, won 11 per cent this year, but that was less than the 12.6 per cent it won in the 2017 national election. The Spanish Vox, which won only 1.6 per cent in 2014, won 6.2 per cent, but that was less than the 10.3 per cent it won in April in the national election. The Sweden Democrats won 15.4 per cent compared with 9.7 per cent in 2014, but that was less than the 17.5 per cent it won in the 2018 national election. And the Finns won 13.8 per cent compared to 12.9 per cent in 2014 but that was less than the 17.5 per cent it won in April in the national election.

And there were still other euroskeptic parties that did badly – some very badly – in the election. The Danish People’s Party, for example, which won 26.6 per cent of the vote in the 2014 EP election, won only 10.8 per cent this year. The Dutch PVV of Geert Wilders, which won 13.3 per cent in the 2014 EP election and 13.1 per cent in the 2017 national election, won only 3.5 per cent in this year’s EP election, largely displaced by the Forum for Democracy. Also, the Italian Five Star Movement, after winning 21.2 per cent in the 2014 EP election and 32.7 per cent in the 2018 national election, won only 17.1 per cent of the vote in this year’s EP election. And then, of course, there are the British Conservatives, who, after being outpolled by UKIP in the 2014 EP election and winning only 23.1 per cent of the vote, won 40.9 per cent of the vote in the 2015 national election and 40 per cent in the 2017 national election, won only 8.9 per cent of the vote in last Thursday’s election.  

Choosing the new leaders for the EU institutions. As the heads of state or government looked around the table at Tuesday evening’s dinner, they were no doubt reminded in a quite dramatic of the process they were about to begin of replacing the current leadership of the EU. After all, there, instead of Sebastian Kurz, was Hartwig Löger, Austria’s interim chancellor who replaced him after Monday’s vote of no confidence. There was Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark, who might not be back after next Wednesday’s election. There was Alexis Tsipras, who had just called an election after Greek voters delivered a huge setback to Syriza. There was Theresa May, who announced last Friday morning that she will resign as leader of the Conservative party on June 7 and will step down as prime minister at some point in the near future. And there, of course, were Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission President, both of whom will leave in the autumn.

But it was clear, even before the dinner began, that the process of replacing the EU leadership had already begun, focused initially on the person who will replace Juncker. Five years ago, the parliamentary parties, believing that, although the treaties give the Parliament the power to appoint the Commission president after the European Council has nominated a candidate, the Council had in effect preempted the role of the Parliament and left it with little to do other than to rubber stamp the Council’s choice, and believing also that personalizing the EP elections would increase public interest in them, came up with the idea of having each party group name a spitzenkandidat – a lead candidate who would represent the party group in the election campaign, including in debates with the other lead candidates, and would, if the party group placed first in the election, become the Commission president. Not surprisingly, the Council objected to the concept and made it clear it would continue, as the treaties stipulate, to nominate the candidate, who might or might not be one of the spitzenkandidaten.

As it turned out, in 2014 the EPP chose Juncker, who had served as the prime minister of Luxembourg and hence as a member of the European Council for 18 years, as its spitzenkandidat, so when the EPP placed first the Council was quite willing to nominate him to be the Commission president, although it made a point of saying it objected to the presumption that in the future the best-placed spitzenkandidat would become Commission president. As Tusk noted in his press conference after Tuesday evening’s dinner, last year the Council reiterated that there would be no “automaticity,” that while being a spitzenkandidat would not preclude an individual from becoming Commission president, it wouldn’t automatically enable him or her to become Commission president in the event the person’s party group placed first in the election.

The EPP chose Weber, someone who has spent his political career as an MEP but has no experience either in the German government or in the Commission, as its spitzenkandidat. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported his candidacy and at the Tuesday meeting even drew a parallel between Weber’s relative lack of experience in government and her own situation earlier in her career, her support has been muted, both because a number of the other leaders object to his lack of experience either in government or the Commission but also because she realizes that if he were to become Commission president the odds of a German – specifically, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann – replacing Mario Draghi as President of the European Central Bank would be greatly reduced. Pablo Sánchez of Spain and Stefan Löfven of Sweden have expressed support instead for Frans Timmermans, a former Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, current First Vice President of the Commission and Commissioner for Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, Rule of Law, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the S&D spitzenkandidat. But of course Timmermans’ role in initiating the Article 7 rule of law process against Hungary and Poland means that he has some enemies on the European Council.

Macron and a number of other leaders have expressed support for Michel Barnier, a former French Minister of the Environment, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, former MEP and former vice president of the EPP, former Commissioner for Regional Policy and, in another stint, Commissioner for the Internal Market and Financial Services, and currently the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. But before the Tuesday evening meeting, Macron made it clear that, while Barnier has “great qualities,” he also thinks highly of Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager, both of whom, he said, have the “right skills” for the job, including experience at the highest level of government and in the Commission. Vestager, a Danish Social Liberal who has previously served as Minister of Economic Affairs and is the current Commissioner for Competition, served with Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and current leader of the ALDE group in the Parliament, as co-leader of the ALDE’s “Team Europe” in the recent election campaign. (The ALDE decided to dispense with a single spitzenkandidat.) Vestager is also supported by Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen and several other leaders. In his press conference after the Tuesday meeting, Tusk underscored, without mentioning names, the need for gender parity in the leadership positions.

Most eyes in Europe will no doubt be focused in the weeks ahead on the leadership contest that is about to start in the British Conservative Party – a contest that may well decide how the Brexit saga will finally end. But there’s another equally interesting leadership contest that is about to start and will unfold over the next three weeks leading up to the European Council meeting on June 20-21. Given the multitude of challenges facing the EU over the next five years, it may well be as consequential for Europe as the Tory contest will be for the UK.


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