After the Election, the Maneuvering | fnst.org

After the Election, the Maneuvering

The Run for Commission President is On
Analysis03.06.2019Markus Kaiser
Guy Verhofstadt, President of ALDE Group
Guy Verhofstadt, President of ALDE Grouppicture alliance / AA

In a construct as multi-layered as the European Union tactical maneuvering follows on the heels of an election. In state or federal parliamentary elections, the persona of the incoming head of government is usually known as soon as election results are announced. At EU level, election results merely establish baselines for negotiation. Not only are parliamentary caucuses yet to emerge, the national leaders of the 28 Member States also play an important role in determining the composition of the future European Commission. 

The recent European election has stirred political upheaval in the Union's Member States. The worst fears of democratic forces, however, have failed to materialize.  Populist and extreme right groups have emerged stronger from the elections but are nonetheless far from being able to exert any significant influence on the legislative agenda of the incoming parliament. The conservative EVP and the social democratic S&D have both lost seats but remain the two strongest factions. And yet there is no getting around the liberal faction: having gained 14.5 percent of the vote, the group is expected to seat 107 representatives and gain in political influence.

Pro-European liberals strengthened almost everywhere

The liberals' success came on the heels of new partnerships and impressive results in a number of individual Member States. In the future liberal caucus – which does not have a name yet, its future designation to be determined in talks with Macron's Renaissance list – the French will be represented by a strong contingent. At 22.5 percent of the French vote, they will seat at least 21 representatives. Another strong delegation, albeit only for an indeterminate period, will be contributed by the United Kingdom: in a victory nothing short of spectacular, the Liberal Democrats have emerged as the second-largest British group, second only to Nigel Farage's Brexit Party. The Liberal Democrats have gained 18.6 percent of the British vote and will contribute 16 representatives to the ALDE faction – 15 more than they did in the last election cycle. Thanks to their clear stance against Brexit, British liberals managed to decisively surge ahead of both traditional major parties in the UK — Labour (14.1%) and the Tories (8.7%). This makes ALDE the faction that profits the most from the postponement of Brexit – but also the faction that stands to lose the most should the United Kingdom actually leave the European Union later this year.

Spain too will seat a significant number of liberal representatives. The Ciudadanos won 12.2 percent — the European election came a mere four weeks after the last Spanish parliamentary election — and are expected to contribute seven delegates. The clear winner in Spain is the socialist PSOE, which won both the national and the European contest with 32.8 percent of the vote. Additional delegations of note are expected from the Czech Republic (6 representatives), the Netherlands (6) and Denmark (4); the Dutch and Danish delegations each consist of members of two separate and competing liberal parties. In Slovakia, four members of the liberal PS-SPOLU secured election to the European Parliament.

Special mention is due to USR-Plus, a Romanian party only recently founded that has won the trust of 21.4 percent of Romanian voters – 8 representatives – in its first-ever outing. Even though USR is not yet an ALDE member, its representatives are expected to join. Another great success was achieved in Hungary. Even though Viktor Orbán and his right-wing populist Fidesz party won well in excess of 50 percent of the vote, the new liberal party, Momentum, secured 9.9 percent. This is enough to allow two liberal Hungarian representatives to take up the fight against the anti-European, anti-liberal policies of the Hungarian government.

The liberals as kingmakers

Since neither conservatives nor social democrats have won a majority, both parties will have to rely on support on the part of the liberal faction. Neither a center-right nor a center-left coalition will be feasible without the participation of ALDE. The liberal caucus, which has been opposing the automatic anointment of either of the two lead candidates (Spitzenkandidaten) to Commission President since well before the election, is already signaling opposition: ‘As of this hour,’ ALDE notes in a statement, ‘no candidate has secured a majority in the European Parliament.’

In another statement, Guy Verhofstadt, the current chairman of ALDE, suggests that the two major parties should "think twice"  before "trying to push through a Commission President over the heads of the democratically elected heads of government". 

Verhofstadt was referring to the role of the European Council, a body comprising the European Union's heads of state and government; it is the European Council that officially nominates the Commission President. At present, nine of the 28 heads of state and government are members of a liberal party, meaning that liberals and conservatives are tied in the Council. Verhofstadt's statements can be read as a barb against Manfred Weber, the conservative Spitzenkandidat whom many liberals oppose. It so happens that the liberal kingmakers have a strong candidate of their own: Margrethe Vestager, a Danish Commissioner who could potentially emerge as a dark horse.

National particularities

As in previous European elections, different member states wrote different stories of their own: In Greece, the poor showing of Syriza, the Greek ruling party, has prompted Prime Minister Tsipras to call a snap election. In Belgium, national parliamentary elections took place simultaneously with the European election. The Flemish separatists of the N-VA emerged as the plurality party, followed by Vlaams Belang, a right-wing extremist group. Immediately on election night, N-VA chairman Bart de Wever demanded a constitutional reform transforming the Belgian federal monarchy into a loose ‘confederation’.

An interesting footnote is due to the Czech Republic, historically one of the more Eurosceptic constituencies: On the one hand, the country recorded a turnout of just 28.7 percent; on the other hand, the number marks an increase of ten percentage points relative to the European elections of 2014. The lowest participation rate was recorded in Slovakia, where a mere 22.7 percent of citizens eligible bothered to turn out and vote.