Will the European Parliament (EP) be able to repeat its Spitzenkandidaten coup of 2014 against a defiant European Council? Can it once again impose the candidate of the strongest party group as President of the European Commission – as it did with Jean-Claude Juncker? After a brief flurry of public but inconclusive activity in Brussels, the issue is back to behind-the-scenes negotiations in the European institutions.
The Treaty on the European Union states that the European Council proposes “to the European Parliament a candidate for the President of the Commission”…. “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations” (Art. 17,7). How, in this light, could the EP seize the initiative from the heads and states of government five years ago?
Generally, the EP is successful in inter-institutional conflicts if it can exploit its normative and institutional bargaining power (Rittberger 2005; Héritier 2007). For one, the EP portrayed itself in 2014 as the only directly elected institution of the EU and Juncker as the candidate of the party group (European People’s Party, EPP) that received a plurality of votes and the support of its grand coalition partner (the Socialists & Democrats, S&D). According to the model of parliamentary democracy, Juncker had therefore earned the legitimate right to lead the “European government” (the Commission). The media supported this democratic claim – especially in Germany where the initially opposed Chancellor Angela Merkel gave in to public pressure.
In addition, the EP threatened the European Council with rejecting any alternative candidate. The EPP-S&D grand coalition was determined to defend its agreement on the distribution of presidential posts (offering the defeated center-left candidate Martin Schulz the presidency of the EP). Moreover, the other pro-integration parties backed the Spitzenkandidaten principle in the common institutional interest of expanding the EP’s powers. In a prolonged institutional stalemate, the EP would not only have occupied the moral high ground, but the member state governments would have been under stronger pressure to get the EU to work.
Is anything different this time? The member state governments are as split as ever on the principle -- with French President Emanuel Macron being the most vocal opponent -- and on the candidates, following party lines. The outcome will therefore depend strongly on the normative and institutional bargaining power of the EP. On the one hand, the democratic credentials of the EP are even better than they were in 2014. Voter turnout was up by eight percent and above 50% for the first time since 1994. Moreover, the 2014 election established a precedent for the Spitzenkandidaten principle that is hard to ignore in 2019.
Yet, ironically, European voters have delivered a parliament with weaker institutional bargaining power. First, the EPP only won 24% of the EP seats, and only 22% if we discount the suspended Hungarian Fidesz, as opposed to almost 30% in 2014. The bad showing of the EPP weakens the claim of Manfred Weber to become Commission President. More importantly, the EPP-S&D coalition lost its absolute majority in the EP. Bilateral deals of the Juncker-Schulz kind are not sufficient anymore.
Adding the Greens to make a majority coalition would produce a thin majority at best and a narrow common political ground with the EPP, and Manfred Weber in particular. A three-party coalition with the liberal group would bring about both a more comfortable majority and more ideological homogeneity. Yet the liberal party group ALDE renounced the Spitzenkandidaten principle that it had endorsed in 2014 to get Macron’s Renaissance electoral alliance on board. Finally, a coalition left of the EPP is not viable. In this situation, it is proving much harder for the EP to set up an early and united front against the governments than it was in 2014.
Nevertheless, a majority of the Conference of Presidents (of the current party groups) issued a declaration on 28 May “reconfirming our resolve for the lead candidate process so that the next Commission President has made her/his program and personality known prior to the elections, and engaged in a European-wide campaign”. Clearly, the declaration does not endorse any of the lead candidates personally – and it lacks the support of ALDE’s Guy Verhofstadt. Yet if the pro-Spitzenkandidaten party groups from the left to the EPP stick to this declaration and remain committed to the parliament’s institutional interest, they will constrain the choice of the member state governments.
And they will also leave a united EPP in control of the process and provide Manfred Weber with the best chance to become the next Commission President. First, the EPP would not sacrifice Weber for Michel Barnier, a supporter of an EPP member party (Les Républicains) with a strong executive record and potentially higher backing among governments – but not a lead candidate. Second, assuming that the groups to the right of the EPP would not back either Frans Timmermans (S&D) or Margrethe Vestager (ALDE and allies), neither would be able to gain a majority against a united EPP.
Héritier, Adrienne. 2007. Explaining Institutional Change in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rittberger, Berthold. 2005. Building Europe's Parliament: Democratic Representation Beyond the Nation State, Oxford: Oxford