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Macron, The 2019 European Elections And The Spitzenkandidaten

Macron, The 2019 European Elections And The Spitzenkandidaten
 Morgan Guérin
Fellow - Europe, Defence

Over a year ago, Brussels was wondering whether the EU could still hold and whether the time for deconstruction had come. Emmanuel Macron’s election, his resolutely pro-European discourse and the 27 member states’ visible unity in the Brexit negotiations, have since raised hope among advocates of the European project. To such an extent that some seem to fear being swept away by this wind of renewal.

Everyone is now preoccupied by the May 2019 European elections. What if the European Parliament underwent the same transformation as the French Parliament, with the renewal of 75% of its members at the last legislative elections? What role will the future members of the European Parliament (MEPs) play in the appointment of the future President of the Commission? 

The rules of the game are now to be set and many would like to change them for the occasion. Beginning of February, the Parliament resolved to rule on the future of the seats left vacant by the departure of the United Kingdom. On Friday 23 February, it was the turn of the Heads of State and Government to meet to address the appointment of the President of the Commission issue.

The situation seems highly uncertain for Emmanuel Macron.

Betting on a political overhaul

In the same way that François Hollande had wished to be judged on his ability to “reverse the unemployment curve”, Emmanuel Macron seems – even though he did not articulate it – to have decided that history would judge his action against the yardstick of his European success. In these circumstances, it seems difficult for him to accept that the European Parliament and its various groups be reinstated after the next elections. On 13 February, during his press conference at the Elysée Palace, he declared: “Europe would benefit from a political overhaul”.

Yet, the European Parliament is not the French National Assembly and French MEPs are only 74 out of 751, representing 9.85% of seats. Emmanuel Macron will have to make a decision. Either he decides that elected MEPs from La République en Marche (LREM) join an existing parliamentary group – hoping that they manage to establish themselves as leaders of this group -, or he wishes to create a new group and convince some national parties to join him.

Were he to pick the first option, the French President would have to choose between the right-wing European People's Party (EPP), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), formerly European socialist party, or the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

  • In the case of the EPP, currently the Parliament’s first party with 211 MEPs, it is hard to imagine that Emmanuel Macron would accept that his MEPs sit with the representatives of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, currently in power in Hungary, or with the French Les Républicains MEPs.
  • Regarding S&D, it is difficult to conceive that Emmanuel Macron would choose a group the main national parties of which are now losing ground, as is the case for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the French Socialist Party (PS) or even the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). After years in power, the latter is today left with only 17 members out of 300 in the Greek Parliament.
  • The most realistic scenario would then be that he join the ALDE group, which, given its liberal and pro-European DNA, seems more compatible with the French President’s ideas. With its 68 MEPs, the group however only comes fourth in the European Parliament. Joining this group would involve choosing the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) as a German partner, which, despite its recent successes in the last elections in Germany, will not participate in the next ruling coalition across the Rhine, and fervently opposes French projects to reform the Eurozone.

Does Emmanuel Macron have another choice but to shatter these parliamentary groups, characterized by heterogeneous compositions and ideological lines that are hardly readable by citizens? It is a question many in Brussels are beginning to have in mind, and an option the President has not yet dismissed. In this case, he will have to convince one by one the different national parties that could team up with him. Some parties seem to defend a political line close to LREM’s and should thus be willing to join him: it is the case of Ciudadanos in Spain or the Democratic Party in Italy. Yet, to impose a complete overhaul of the Parliament, Emmanuel Macron will have to find a German partner with whom to work, and therefore convince either Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or the SPD.

In order to initiate this overhaul, Emmanuel Macron aspired to take advantage of some of the seats that will no longer be held by British MEPs after the next elections by assigning them to "transnational lists", for which every European citizen could vote. Such a reform would have allowed for the election of MEPs who are not attached to a national or subnational constituency, and thus possibly encouraged new political trends or fault lines to emerge. Current EPP MEPs and various conservative and Eurosceptic parties however opposed the project by a majority of 368 votes against 274, and reminded the French President that they did not intend to passively follow his ambitions.

The thorny Spitzenkandidaten issue

The European Parliament is far from being the only one triggering speculations. Jean-Claude Juncker’s succession to the presidency of the European Commission also opposed the European Parliament to Member States, and namely France. Since the 2014 European elections, the President of the European Commission’s appointment process is defined in Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). It provides that the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the Parliament a candidate by "taking into account" the results of the European elections, the Parliament then electing this candidate by a majority of its members. This is the "Spitzenkandidaten" process.

As in 2014, each major European party wishes to announce during the election campaign the name of the candidate it will support to lead the Commission. Yet, Emmanuel Macron wants the European Council to maintain the freedom to appoint the next President of the Commission, and reminded that according to him, the current system does not imply that the next Parliament will have full freedom in this area. Meeting on Friday 23 February in Brussels at an informal summit, the twenty-seven European Heads of State and Government rejected any automaticity of the mechanism provided for in Article 17.

Two sides, and two legitimacies, now oppose each other. On the one hand, the European Parliament and Jean-Claude Juncker support a form of automaticity, which according to them provides citizens with a better grasp of European issues. On the other, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, believe that the current system guarantees a form of stability and that the appointment by the heads of the executive, elected within the different Member States, is just as democratic.

Let us not be fooled: be it the electoral rules or the appointment method of the President of the Commission, these institutional debates are primarily political and reflect the new power balance in Europe. These negotiations between leaders will occupy the media and political space for many more months, perhaps even to the point of making us forget that a new electoral surprise is still possible.

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