EU Elections: The gloves are off
The European elections are over, but it could be argued that the real battle has only just begun. Martin Banks reports from the EU front line.
With the elections now in the rear-view mirror, new alliances are being formed in Parliament, new group leaderships are emerging, and sought-after committee chairs are being handed out.
One battle that threatens to rumble on over the summer is the distribution of the EU’s most senior jobs. The five posts up for grabs are the presidencies of the Commission, Council, Parliament, the EU’s foreign policy chief and European Central Bank.
Most agree that the Commission post remains top of the heap and it is certainly the one subject to the fiercest battle.
There have been 12 Commission Presidents, including the outgoing Jean-Claude Juncker, but none have been female.
Since Jacques Delors, arguably the most successful of the 12, the post (with the exception of the Italian Liberal Romano Prodi) has been dominated by one European “family” - the centre-right EPP.
Last week, immediately after the elections, EU leaders met in Brussels for a dinner where the allocation of the presidency and other posts was the main course.
The jockeying and horse trading is now well and truly underway.
Afterwards, European Council President Donald Tusk said that out of the four posts, EU leaders should aim for “at least two women, if it’s possible”.
He said gender balance was not only his aspiration but also commanded a “very visible majority around the table.”
EU leaders at the meeting invited Parliament to try to present Council with a candidate for the Commission presidency who commands a majority within the chamber. And that, currently, is the big problem.
The mainstream groups, including the EPP, Socialists, Greens, ECR and, to a lesser extent, ALDE, still support the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process.
This specifies that the outcome of the elections “must be taken into consideration” in deciding who heads the EU executive.
This, as five years ago when Juncker was appointed, is understood to mean that the candidate of the winning party (the EPP) is also Parliament’s lead candidate.
The problem is that the EPP’s man - German deputy Manfred Weber - is seen by some as simply too lightweight for such a weighty position.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to support Weber, but he has one major opponent - French President Emmanuel Macron, who last week said that any Commission President “needs to know what an executive is”, adding, “We need strong leaders with strong experience” and also “strong legitimacy.”
Denis MacShane, a former UK Europe Minister, says that while the EPP has again emerged as the biggest group, it was “rejected by three out of four voters” so Weber’s automatic claim to be the new President “cannot be sustained.”
An article in La Liberation, the leading French daily, branded Weber as “Merkel’s little darling, who does not speak French” and whose only political experience is leading the EPP.
MEPs have the right to sign off on the person who eventually emerges as the final choice, but the headache for Parliament is that, currently, the various political groups, with none commanding an overall majority compared with 2014, are struggling to coalesce around one agreed individual.
Alberto Alemanno, a Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law at the HEC international college in Paris, said that Parliament’s insistence on the lead candidate system relies on a “faulty assumption”, saying, “The political centre of gravity of the new Parliament resides elsewhere, far from the EPP and tilts towards the centre-left of the political spectrum.”
“That’s where the new EU political balance lies and where the new Commission President can and should be found”.
Tusk has now started negotiations with Parliament in the lead-up to the next leaders’ summit on June 21-22 to find a “suitable” candidate - someone who can garner an absolute majority in Parliament and a qualified majority in Council, meaning 55 percent of states representing 65 percent of the population.
Some are suggesting that there is one person who could solve the riddle and that ticks most of the required boxes: EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.
Vestager, the lead candidate for Europe’s Liberal grouping, which Macron’s MEPs are expected to join in Parliament, is touted as a potential “compromise” candidate, reflecting the sense of a political shift to the left in the assembly around the mainstream parties.
During her term, Vestager spearheaded a highly-publicised crackdown on corporate tax avoidance, targeting giants such as Fiat, Starbucks, Amazon and McDonalds.
Tech giants were also on the radar of the “dreaded Dane” with a record €4.3bn fine for Google. She also ordered the Irish government to reclaim in unpaid taxes a record €13bn from Apple.
If Vestager does succeed Juncker, it would come as no surprise to the authors of an online survey in February which found she was the “clear favourite”.
The Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCM) survey ranked the performance from 0 to 10 of each EU Commissioner and Vestager had an approval rating of 50.2 percent, the only member of Juncker’s team of 28 to achieve a score above 50 percent.
According to BCM, it is “no surprise” Vestager came on top, adding, “Many see her as the brightest star of the Commission.”
Comments accompanying the survey said she comes across as “smart, tough, articulate and empathetic.”
Meanwhile, Senior UK MEP Richard Corbett has thrown his weight behind his Socialist colleague Frans Timmermans for the commission presidency.
On Wednesday, Corbett, who was re-elected in the European elections, told this website, “Timmermans is the outstanding candidate in terms of competence and communication skills.
He is also the most likely to build the broad political support needed to secure the necessary parliamentary majority”.
Other names are now being put forward, including Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator in the Brexit talks and Josep Borrell, a former president of the European Parliament and now Spanish foreign minister.
The first Commission president was Walter Hallstein, a German academic, who served from 1958-67.
The job had little significance back then but, with a €300,000-a-year salary, huge influence (and an overflowing in-tray) there is clearly no shortage of names in the frame.
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