European Council President Donald Tusk was right last week to feel “more cautious than optimistic”, as European leaders could not unite behind a candidate to propose for the Presidency of the European Commission.
Despite lengthy talks and negotiations, at 2am on Friday 21 June, President Tusk announced to a bleary eyed and caffeine weary European Union press corps the solemn words - “there was no majority for any candidate.”
He went on to say that the European Council agreed that there needs to be a package reflecting the diversity of the EU and that in an attempt to break the impasse there will be another meeting on 30 June.
This failure to agree upon a candidate is a stinging blow to Manfred Weber - the EPP’s candidate for President of the European Commission. As the candidate representing the largest party bloc, Weber saw this informal summit as the moment to strengthen his position in the race to the Commission’s top job by securing the support of the EU 28 leaders.
The inability to do just that leads to the race opening up to other candidates - who may not even be a Spitzenkandidat - as bargaining between leaders and party groups will increase in a desperate bid to find a compromise solution before the Parliament takes its seat on 2 July. Could we see Vestager as the first female Commission President? Or Barnier as the ‘compromise’ candidate? It is all still to play for.
What has caused the blockage?
EU leaders - United in Disunity: The wide range of views amongst the heads of state and government - positive and hostile - to not only the Spitzenkandidat process itself but also to the suitability of the candidates to the top job. We understand that the informal dinner of 20 June was only intended to explore the most obvious candidates, and potential names outside of the Spitzenkandidaten circle were not formally discussed.
New Parliament - New Rules: The European Parliament election results which significantly shifted power away from the traditional powers - EPP and S&D - to the Greens and ALDE (now Renew) has prevented a repeat of what happened in 2014: The EPP and S&D joining forces to create a majority in Parliament to rally behind Juncker’s candidacy.
How can the deadlock be broken?
Intra-Group Consultations: Sources report that consultations within a German political delegation will take place on Wednesday, 26 June; after those, the EPP group might start an internal process to select Plan-B candidates to Weber to propose.
Late Night Talks and Compromise Packages: On 30 June, the discussions will go late into the night, and over to breakfast, if necessary, in an attempt to reach a consensus which can be supported by the Member States and the Parliament.
EU Leaders - United in Disunity
Recognising the wide variety of opinion amongst leaders, President Tusk embarked upon a delicate diplomatic tour to canvas opinions and make sure that whichever candidate chosen by the European Council can get the backing of the European Parliament, too, when it convenes in plenary session in July.
Six representatives of the major political families were appointed as coordinators for informal consultations, which aimed at steering the discussion amongst Member States:
Charles Michel (Prime Minister of Belgium) + Mark Rutte (Prime Minister of the Netherlands) for Renew Europe
Krišjānis Kariņš (Prime Minister of Latvia) + Andrej Plenković (Prime Minister of Croatia) for EPP
António Costa (Prime Minister of Portugal) + Pedro Sánchez (Prime Minister of Spain) for the S&D
They convened for dinner on 7 June, without settling on any official direction.
These occurred alongside with European Council President Tusk’s informal sondage with European leaders and with Presidents of the parliamentary political groups.
One must bear in mind that voting for the President of the Commission is carried out by Qualified Majority: this implies that large EU countries, whose government do not belong to the three biggest political families, still play a crucial role. In particular, the opinion of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May (belonging to the ECR family), or who will come after her, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (Deputy Prime Ministers Salvini and Di Maio belong respectively to Identity and Democracy and currently Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy - though 5 Star Movement is struggling to fund new coalition partners), and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (ECR) are deemed crucial. Interestingly, EPP Spitzenkandidat Weber has traveled to both Poland and Italy in the weeks between the elections and the European Council dinner.
Please see the graphic below for information about which European political family the Member State governments belong to:
New Parliament - New Rules:
What makes it even more challenging to square the circle, other than taking gender and geographical balance into consideration, is that all political families have their own agenda and are reluctant to surrender their position in the pursuit of power.
The European People’s Party has been at the steering wheel of the three institutions (European Commission, European Council and European Parliament) and are reluctant to let go - despite their reduced strength both in the European Parliament; overall, they aim at maintaining the European Commission Presidency.
Liberals experienced the largest increase seats and are seen by many as the “king-makers”, as they cannot be ignored if a majority of seats in the Parliament is to be secured.
The “Green Wave” registered in the election - whilst substantial - is not enough for the Greens/EFA to justify the position of Commission President, but it gives them legitimacy to request concessions in the Parliament, either on the agenda or on the parliamentary Presidency. Different sources suggest that, behind the scenes, they could be backing Vestager’s candidacy.
The S&D, whilst still 2nd place in the European parliament, have the benefit of being affiliated with 1 European leader who is enjoying political success: Spain’s Pedro Sánchez who recently won the Spanish general election and saw his party top the polls in the European election. Similar success for the Socialists were recorded in Portugal and the Netherlands. The hope for those wanting Timmermans in key position is that the charismatic Sánchez can position the S&D into a strong position.
Please see the graphic below which shows the parliamentary make up:
Heads of state and government will try to reconcile behind a broadly-supported name on 30 June. The candidate will be put in front of the European Parliament for confirmation during the plenary session starting on 2 July. Should the/she not win the support of a majority of 376 MEPs, European leaders will have a month to come up with a new name.