Whitehouse European Election Series: The EU’s political crossroads

The EU’s political crossroads

On 23 – 26th May the next European Parliament (EP) elections will take place. Following years of political turmoil and challenges, combined with anti-EU sentiments and populism rising from left and right, these elections come at a time when the EU is at a crossroads. Over the next few weeks, The Whitehouse Consultancy will dig deeper into the ins and outs of these elections and what will shape the political debates on national and European level. For our first post in the Whitehouse European Election Series, we will take a look at the election process and who to look out for over the next two months.

This election will mark the second time that our vote for an MEP will also effect the appointment of the President of the European Commission. The Lisbon Treaty in 2009 introduced a new scheme by which EU leaders must “take into account” the result of the EP elections when proposing a candidate for the executive’s top position.

In 2014, these three words prompted the EP to hijack the Commission Presidency appointment process. Through what is referred to as the “Spitzenkandidaten” process, the main political groups appointed a lead candidate and told EU leaders they would only approve a candidate for the Commission top job if this person led the group that won the European elections. This forced EU leaders to put forward European People Party (EPP) leader Jean-Claude Juncker, despite heavy objections by some people, including then UK Prime Minister David Cameron who didn’t want such a pro-European leading the EU’s executive.

So, will MEPs take a similar approach this time around? While the Spitzenkandidaten process aimed to Europeanise political debates and increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU, many have come to criticise it. This has been particularly problematic for the European liberal group (ALDE), currently the fourth biggest party. They have been trying to woo French President Macron into joining the group, but have so far failed due to, among other things, the President’s dislike of the Spitzenkandidaten process. They have now introduced a “Team Europe”, a group of seven prominent liberals, including leader Guy Verhofstadt and two Commissioners, to lead the electoral campaign. Despite previously fully endorsing the Spitzenkandidaten process, the liberals may have also come to the realisation that they will not win the European elections and, with eight Prime Ministers in the European Council, they stand a bigger chance of delivering the Commission President through EU leaders than the EP.

Successfully bringing a united campaign on the EU level has also proven challenging for the biggest party in the EP, the Christian democratic EPP. Currently predicted to win the elections again, it is no surprise the EPP decided to go with the Spitzenkandidaten process once more. Current EPP candidate Manfred Weber seemed an easy choice, however, his campaign was quickly overshadowed by the EPP’s decision to suspend Viktor Orbán’s governing Fidesz party over concerns about the independence of the Hungarian judiciary, academic and press freedom, treatment of migrants and his anti-Jean-Claude Juncker campaign. Weber will need to weigh upholding the EPP’s values against potentially losing Fidesz’s seats as well as significant influence in the more Eurosceptic countries in the event the party leaves his group.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats, the second group in the EP, have decided to go all in on Dutchman Frans Timmermans, who as Vice-President of the Commission has built a reputation for upholding EU values and challenging populist governments. Despite these credentials, he will have his work cut out leading this group through the campaign and avoiding the 50-seat loss that is currently predicted, particularly in view of the overwhelming defeats national socialist parties have suffered in elections over recent years.

The parties really to look out for though are the Eurosceptics. Rejecting the Spitzenkandidaten process out of principle, the Eurosceptic groups are still expected to see their share of seats rise, particularly thanks to the success of national parties such as the Italian League, Germany’s AfD, and France’s National Rally. With the loss of UK parties (particularly the Conservatives and UKIP) and the creation of new national groups, such as the Dutch Forum for Democracy and the Spanish Vox, it is likely a reshuffle of alliances and leaders will take place among these groups, making watching how these realignments unfold particularly interesting.

One thing is sure though – the dynamics of the political groups in the next EP and by extension the election of the future President of the European Commission will have a significant impact on the future course of the EU. Watch this space.