The coming shakeup in the leadership of top positions in the European Union has given President Emmanuel Macron of France an unusually strong hand in determining its future. The question of how he will play that hand looms over the next European elections in May 2019, where—as in 2017 when he denied Marine Le Pen the French presidency—his main task may become to help secure a pro-European majority in the European Parliament.
The next European Commission president is likely to be selected by securing majority support in the European Parliament to be elected next year. Under the Spitzenkandidat principle, as recently confirmed by the European Parliament, the next European Commission president must have been nominated by one of its nine political groups. In 2014, the “lead candidate” chosen by Parliament and reluctantly accepted by the EU Council—Jean-Claude Juncker—was from the biggest group in the new parliament, the center-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP). In parliamentary systems, being the single biggest party, however, is meaningless unless you win an outright majority. What really matters is the ability to cobble together a majority from diverse parties. The grand coalition that backed Juncker is dead, and a candidate backed by the EPP will most likely not be chosen next year, even if it returns as the single biggest group. The reasons are that other political groups may want to punish the EPP for monopolizing Europe’s top jobs in recent years as well as for its continuing acceptance of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party as a member.
As the EU Council noted on February 23, it does not automatically select the European Parliament’s preferred candidate. But any Spitzenkandidat with broad support among the EU Council members—where nominations do not require unanimity—is likely to secure wider support within the Parliament. On the other hand, a person who has not at least attempted to secure a pan-European democratic mandate during the parliament elections will be difficult for the EU Council to nominate—in other words, the Council can't simply choose a candidate from among its own national leaders. Yet the process continues to give the EU Council a veto against any candidate backed by the European Parliament without broader political support across the continent.
European Parliament's Largest Party Groups in Decline: Enter Macron
This power mix gives Macron an opportunity to shake up the current composition of the European Parliament, for several reasons.
The three largest current European Parliament party groupings are all likely to lose seats in 2019. The EPP stands to suffer because one of its constituents, the German center-right coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), is not likely to repeat the 35 percent share of the German vote it received in 2014. In addition, the French Republicans are in disarray following the rise of Macron. In Italy, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s political luck is running out, and Spain’s Partido Popular also seems unlikely to repeat its 26 percent of the vote in 2014.
The second largest group, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), is handicapped by the disappearance of the UK Labour Party after Brexit. The Italian Democratic Party is not likely to win the 41 percent it received in 2014, and the same goes for the German Social Democrats and their 27 percent. And Macron has already decimated the French Socialists. The Socialist-Democrat group thus looks likely to shrink in 2019.
The third-largest group, the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) coalition, may gain more votes from more successful European right-wing parties. But the group also stands to lose its largest contingent from the UK Conservative party after Brexit. The ECR’s ability to match the 70 seats of 2014 looks questionable, unless it adds additional right-wing parties to its ranks.
All told, a Macron-led strategy of pulling together a liberal centrist coalition at the European level next year appears plausible. His own La Republique En Marche party (LREM) is currently leading early polls and should do well in France, and the Spanish liberal party Ciudadanos, leading the polls in Spain, looks to become a natural partner. Questions linger about credible Italian partners, given Italy’s recent political upheaval and the entry into a populist government by the new 5-Star Movement (MS5). Macron also faces the question of which if any German partner to pick. Under Christian Lindner’s leadership, the traditional German liberals in the Free Democratic Party (FDP) have taken an increasingly anti-EU position, which would be difficult to reconcile with Macron’s reform proposals. The German Green Party might be a better political fit for the French president.
Ultimately, Macron must choose whether to go his own way and start his own political family or throw his support behind the existing liberal grouping in the European Parliament, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Macron’s history suggests that he may well do the former.
But Who Serves as Candidate?
But who will actually serve as the candidates for each of the European Parliament political groupings? The European Parliament made it easier for sitting EU commissioners to become Spitzenkandidaten. Accordingly, Pierre Moscovici, the commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs (ECFIN) who is associated with the center-left, could emerge. The Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, traditionally associated with the EPP, may face challenges. Barnier’s problem is that to secure the EPP candidacy, he needs first the nomination of his Republican Party in France, unlikely with its new hard-right leadership under Laurent Wauquiez. Also, for a French national to again secure the Commission presidency, he would likely need Macron’s support.
Barnier could defect to LREM and secure Macron’s backing, but a Barnier candidacy supported by Macron would not likely attract a significant following among other European centrist/liberal parties in the European Parliament, who might view the move as a French powerplay. In the EU Council, smaller member states would likely rebel against a perceived Franco-German sharing of the spoils in Europe.
A perennial dark horse candidate (especially in the Anglo-Saxon press) is Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), though she is unlikely to win support from Macron. In any case, she has no experience in political campaigning and would have to resign from her position to campaign across Europe as a Spitzenkandidat.
Macron's Possible Picks
Macron’s smartest move would be to recruit a super competent and high-profile female candidate from among Europe’s other liberal parties to be his Spitzenkandidat. Such a candidate would likely have an easier task in securing the necessary majority support in the next European Parliament than any of Macron’s countrymen, making it next to impossible for the EU Council to reject such a choice. The one who fits these personal and political characteristics best is Margrethe Vestager, the increasingly well known competition commissioner, who is from the Danish—and member of ALDE—Social Liberal Party.
Meanwhile, the French president looks less likely to make a surprise choice for the next president of the EU Council, a position dictated mostly by the traditional regional and political balance considerations in Europe. Donald Tusk, the current president, and the only East European in a top job in the European Union, step downs in November 2019. An implicit rule exists that the next head of the Council must be a current member of it, i.e. a head of government or state in the European Union. Given that Eastern Europe has increasingly been plagued by political instability, corruption, and proto-authoritarian government behavior (in Hungary and Poland), the number of credible candidates from the region is small.
Current Romanian president Klaus Iohannis is probably the one credible contender to the EU Council job from Eastern Europe. Few alternatives are obvious, implying that the political fortunes of leaders between now and 2019 will be decisive.