Quarterly Concerns

Jun 14, 2024

The Center Holds and the Horse-Trading Begins

The far right won’t play kingmaker when it comes to deciding on whether von der Leyen is reappointed as European Commission president, but they are still a stronger force in the new European Parliament.

An illustration showing Ursula von der Leyen
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The European Parliament elections have come and gone, and other than in France and Germany, they did not deliver the “surge” in far-right seats that had been predicted by much of the media. 

The parliament’s two far-right groups, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Marine Le Pen’s Identity & Democracy (ID), stayed roughly where they were before the election in terms of their number of seats. For Le Pen, the gains in France were tempered by the loss of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which she expelled from ID just before the election, and losses for Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, an ID member. For Meloni, her Brothers of Italy party’s gains at home (far-right voters moved to her from Salvini) were tempered by poorer-than-expected performances by ECR member parties in Poland, Scandinavia, and Spain.

But the election is just the start of a process. It’s now clear the center will hold, with an alliance of center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and the liberal Renew Europe, and there will be no right-wing controlling majority in the parliament. 

But there is a big question over where the far right goes from here. Their numbers may be the same for now, but the wind is at their backs and there are plenty of as-yet-unaligned MEPs to scoop up. Most of the 97 MEPs that are not part of a group at European level are on the right side of the political spectrum. Historically, most of the unaligned MEPs elected every five years stay unaligned. But this year could be different, particularly with the AfD now politically homeless.

Meloni has been successful over the past three years in luring far-right ID member parties such as the True Finns over to ECR. Parties like Vox, which were being courted by ID, chose to join ECR instead. Many far-right parties across Europe still view the Le Pen brand as toxic, preferring to ally with Meloni who has successfully charmed the center right into rebranding her as moderate (despite coming from a successor party to Mussolini’s Fascists).

Meloni’s Stronger Political Capital

There is every reason to believe that this trend will continue during the group formation process over the next three weeks. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) party may have won six more seats than Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, but Meloni has built a strong and geographically diverse group with many members. ID is now a group where more than half of the members are from one party—RN. Of the other eight countries represented in the group, four of the parties have only one MEP. 

Given that a group must have members from at least seven countries, Meloni only has to lure three MEPs away from ID to make Le Pen’s group dissolve entirely. Le Pen may have no choice but to welcome back the AfD in order to keep ID alive. It’s no wonder, then, that she has made the offer to Meloni to unite their two groups. But Meloni has shown no interest in such a proposition. After all, why should she share the spotlight with Le Pen when her own political capital at the European level is much stronger?

Given that Le Pen’s RN is going to be distracted with the national legislative election at the exact time they should be trying to woo over new MEPs, it is inconceivable that Le Pen is going to win this race. ECR, currently just below the liberal Renew Europe group in fourth place, looks likely to shoot up to third place—a position it has held briefly already at certain times in the not-too-distant past. Le Pen’s ID, if it even survives, looks set for continued irrelevance in the parliament.

Von der Leyen Eyes Second Term

Since the center held, Meloni can no longer be said to be a “kingmaker” in the negotiations happening this month. Von der Leyen does not need the ECR group for confirmation. In fact, mathematically it’s not even something she could consider. If she approaches ECR to get their endorsement, she will lose the votes of the center-left S&D group, which has said they will not support her if she relies on the ECR for confirmation. The EPP, Renew, and ECR would not give her a majority. And German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose Social Democrats are part of the S&D, has also said that if von der Leyen were to approach the ECR for their support he may veto her appointment already at the Council. 

So, if she wants to add a fourth partner to not risk a scenario where defections in the secret ballot from members of the three centrist parties puts her under the line, she will need to go to the Greens. The memory will still be seared in her mind from when she survived her confirmation vote by only nine votes. That was more to do with the Council’s rejection of the Spitzenkandidat system of selecting group presidential candidates before the election (she was not a candidate). It may be that von der Leyen would welcome the opportunity to recommit to her EU Green Deal as a condition for the Greens’ support, after she was forced by her EPP group to walk away from it during the campaign in case the election left the parliament with a right-wing majority. 

Meloni could still attempt to kill von der Leyen’s appointment in the European Council, but she hasn’t shown any inclination to do so and it would be against her own interests after von der Leyen spent the campaign lavishing praise on her. Italy does not have the votes in the European Council to veto a president’s appointment in any event, history has shown that the only two countries that have the political power to veto someone are France and Germany (as David Cameron learned the hard way when he voted against Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014 but was outvoted).

Unpopular in France

French President Emmanuel Macron was always the biggest potential obstacle to von der Leyen’s appointment to a second term, which is ironic given he was the one who put her forward as a surprise European Commission president choice in 2019. But given that, like Le Pen, he will be distracted by the French legislative election over the coming month, it is doubtful he has the time (or the political capital after losing the European Parliament elections so badly) to pull any shenanigans in Brussels. 

It’s still possible that, given von der Leyen’s unpopularity in France, he might see political benefit in throwing out another name in the next two weeks—perhaps former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, who he is reported to prefer this time around. Although he is known for his big gambles, would Macron really be willing to risk the humiliation of being outvoted in the Council on von der Leyen’s reappointment? Although it’s politically hard to conceive of a European Commission president being appointed even after France or Germany voted no, it’s mathematically possible because this is a qualified majority vote. Macron cannot risk being humiliated like Cameron just two days ahead of the snap election he called.

But so far there have been no noises from the Élysée about throwing a wrench in the reappointment plan. Von der Leyen remains well-liked by national leaders because she does what they say and doesn’t generally challenge them. With a new president, the leaders wouldn’t know what they’re getting. And the last thing they want is another Jacques Delors, the European Commission president from 1985 to 1995, who might challenge them. If she is indeed reappointed by the Council on June 28 (two days before the first round of French voting), the European Parliament is scheduled to vote on her confirmation in their first Strasbourg plenary session of the new term on July 17. That is where the group formations will also be registered, so by then the relative strength of Meloni’s and Le Pen’s groups will be clear. 

More Horse-trading

There are other EU top jobs to be decided at that June 28 summit: European Council president (better translated into English as “chairman”), European Parliament president (“speaker”) and High Representative for Foreign Affairs (“EU foreign minister”). If von der Leyen or someone else from the EPP is made European Commission president (it is a tradition, but not a rule, that the political group which wins the most seats in the election should get the presidency), the S&D will demand the council chair position. They have in mind former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who resigned following a corruption scandal earlier this year but since then has seemingly been cleared of wrongdoing. The European Parliament president is likely to remain the Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola from the EPP. That leaves EU foreign minister for the Liberals. It is this position that is in most doubt.

Estonian Prime Minister and former MEP Kaja Kallas is a name that has been floating around. She is very well-liked both in Brussels and in national capitals. But there is concern in Western Europe that someone from the Baltics would be too hawkish on Russia and take the EU line further than the 27 national foreign ministers have agreed. “Kallas could get us into World War III,” quipped one Western European diplomat to me privately last month. 

So, they may be more comfortable with a former Belgian prime minister, either Sophie Wilmes (who presided over the country during the COVID-19 pandemic and became foreign minister after) or Alexander De Croo (who just resigned following his Liberal party’s disastrous performance in the EU and national elections on June 9, but will stay on as caretaker prime minister and could therefore vote for himself).

In theory, all of this should be wrapped up by mid-July, at which time national governments will start putting forward their nominations for commissioners. Those nominees will be grilled by the parliament in confirmation hearings in the fall, and a final confirmation vote on the European Commission as a whole will take place at the end of the year. 

But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. It is possible that Macron will come out against von der Leyen ahead of the French election or request that the decision be delayed until after the second round of French voting on July 7, to avoid potential domestic backlash. A delay would mean that the European Parliament’s confirmation vote couldn’t take place until September. Inevitably, it seems likely that this entire process will be affected by the French elections. But nobody’s quite sure yet in what way that will manifest. 

Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Brussels covering European politics for France24.

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