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Future of Europe is taking shape

With the European elections only days away, speculation on who will lead the European institutions is increasing. Whilst the lead candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission and the candidates for the European Parliament are facing each other in debates across Europe, European heads of state and government met on 9 May in Sibiu, Romania, to set out a roadmap for the European Union’s future.

The guide below offers you the perfect overview of the key events that have taken place and events still to occur:

Race to become the next President of the Commission: Update

The lengthy process that will determine the next President of the European Commission is well under way. The lead candidates from the major European parties had their first confrontation in Maastricht and in Firenze, and will have a final debate in the European Parliament in Brussels on 15 May.

The intention to tackle issues such as climate change and societal inequalities were common elements across the mainstream political groups, whilst they clashed on one issue in particular - whether or not there should be a European army. Both in Maastricht and Firenze, Timmermans (Spitzenkandidat for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D)) and Bas Eickhout and Ska Keller (joint Spitzenkandidaten for Greens) were seen as doing particularly well, according to opinion polls. Weber’s absence from the Maastricht debate in Maastricht not only attracted criticism from the other Spitzenkandidaten, but also from the organisers

Rocky road ahead for Weber

Nonetheless, as the European People’s Party (EPP) is predicted to be the largest group in the European Parliament, Weber is certainly a top pick for the role of Commission President. However, a number of obstacles stand in Weber’s way. Above all, it is up to European heads of state/government to suggest a candidate to be confirmed by the European Parliament; they are not legally bound to follow the Spitzenkandidat process.

Tied to this, some European leaders have expressed doubts about Weber’s credibility to take on the top job at the Commission. President Macron has explicitly opposed Weber’s candidacy and Orban has also withdrawn his support (more on that below). The heads of the Luxembourgish and Lithuanian government have also voiced their scepticism towards the Spitzenkandidat process as a whole, suggesting that they might not follow it. In the meantime, whilst Germany’s Merkel has publicly endorsed her compatriot, she has not taken a stance in strongly defending his candidacy.

And even more difficult for Timmermans

Frans Timmermans, Spitzenkandidat for the S&D, was viewed by many as the winner for both the Maastricht and Firenze Debate. Still, it is unlikely that the Dutch politician and current Commission First Vice President will become the new Commission President. Critically, polling shows the S&D will not be the largest part bloc in the Parliament after the elections. This has not stopped Timmermans from actively campaigning across Europe in a bid to boost the number of elected S&D MEPs. Whilst he is in election mode, he is receiving a lot of criticism from back home. The Dutch Socialist Party (Timmermans represents the Dutch Labour Party) released a parody video of Timmermans created ‘Hans Brusselmans’. In this clip Frans is portrayed as a power-hungry, Euro-addict ignoring the wish of Dutch citizens in his quest to create a European Super-State.

The road could open for a dark horse to take the top position in the Commission

Polling suggests it is unlikely that any single political group will be able to secure an outright majority of seats (378). If this proves to be the case, the European Council will feel emboldened to choose a Commission President candidate out of their own hand of cards. An informal, but certainly qualified candidate could be Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. After all, he is from the EPP family, widely known across Europe and has a strong relationship with all EU27 leaders having worked with them for over 2 years on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU: he could very well prove to be Europe’s happy medium.

Since the candidate nominated by the European Council has to be confirmed by the European Parliament by an absolute majority, the question at that point would be whether the major political groups will be willing to vote in favour of anybody outside of the official Spitzenkandidat list. It can be assumed that far-right parties will vote freely, since they did not present a lead candidate of their own ahead of the elections. To note that, differently from what they did for European elections in 2014, the ECR did nominate a Spitzenkandidat this year, Czech MEP Jan Zahradil.

Inside the European Parliament

Fragmented Parliament and new alliances

According to Votewatch estimations, around 60% of the new European Parliament will be made up of new-comers, while only 40% of the seats will be occupied by former Members. Other than the composition, coalitions within and between political groups are also expected to shift.

In Florence, Verhofstadt announced his intention to dissolve ALDE after the election, to form a new political centre with French President Macron and his "Renaissance" list. Together, they are projected to obtain around 100 parliamentary seats. The race to win the European Elections in France for Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) is looking tight at the moment: the latest Ipsos poll suggests that for the first time Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) has surpassed En Marche.

Whilst change is certainly coming to ALDE, the EPP could experience a political split – all be it one not of its own choosing. Victor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, announced that his party Fidesz is no longer supporting Weber as EPP candidate. This announcement comes after months of tension between Orban and Weber where the latter criticised the former’s domestic policies and hostile rhetoric towards the EU. Orban’s decision comes at a time when he is seeking new alliances with far-right party leaders such as Austrian Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) Heinz-Christian Strache and Italian League’s Matteo Salvini. These political manoeuvres from Orban could herald Fidesz splitting from the EPP and taking the lead in forming a new party bloc in the European Parliament made up of nationalist and anti-EU forces. Tellingly, Orban remarked that if to obtain a majority of seats the EPP forms a coalition with the S&D, which are "pro-migration", cooperation between his own Fidesz and the EPP would be difficult.

Political veteran Silvio Berlusconi has recently joined Orban in his call for conservatives to move closer to the far-right, and encouraged the EPP, his political family, to abandon the traditional coalition with the S&D.

A European Agenda for 2019-2024

Commission looks to the future

In view of the next legislative term, the European institutions are looking at what issues they should give priority to and insert into the Strategic agenda 2019-2024.

The European Commission produced a number of documents, released on Tuesday, 30 April, which collectively represent its contribution to the agenda-setting exercise for a protective, competitive, fair, sustainable, and influential Europe. Besides giving policy recommendations to the next College of Commissioners, they took note of the “unfinished business”, i.e. files in negotiation phase that have not been finalized yet, including the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), e-Privacy, modern tax rules for a modern economy and prevention of the dissemination of terrorist content online.

These documents fed into the informal session of the European Council (not to be confused with the Council of the EU, composed of national Ministers) held on Thursday, 9 May (Europe Day) in Sibiu, Romania. At the presence of President Iohannis of the Romanian Council Presidency and of the European Commission President Juncker, leaders (minus UK’s Theresa May, who was not supposed to attend) started preliminary discussions on a vision for the future of Europe.

27 Member States gave their verdict

These documents fed into the informal session of the European Council (not to be confused with the Council of the EU, composed of national Ministers) held on Thursday, 9 May (Europe Day) in Sibiu, Romania. At the presence of President Iohannis of the Romanian Council Presidency and of the European Commission President Juncker, leaders (minus UK’s Theresa May, who was not supposed to attend) started preliminary discussions on a vision for the future of Europe.

The European Council has released an outline of the strategic agenda, and adopted the Sibiu Declaration, to reaffirm their commitment to stay united and protect democracy and citizens. The strategic agenda is expected to be officially adopted on 20-21 June 2019, when a candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission will also be nominated. Since the mandate of Donald Tusk as President of the European Council and of Mario Draghi as President of the European Central Bank are both expiring on 31 October 2019, the European institutional turnover will be completed by the appointment of new serving official in such roles.

And don't forget the Parliament

The European Parliament will be asked to confirm or reject the proposal made by the European Council on its plenary session of 15 July. After an agreement will be reached on the top level, the time will come to look at the rest of the College of Commissioners. When it comes to the bargaining for the Commission’s dossiers, an unwritten rule would establish that commissioners should not be the same nationality as the director generals steering the relative Directorate.

According to schedule, the new European Commission will be validated in October and will take office on 19 November 2019.

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