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News & Insights on Europe

News and Views on Europe – 31 May 2019

posted by eucentresg

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No clear winner emerges for European Commission President
EU leaders met at an informal summit after the European elections on Tuesday (28 May) to discuss the distribution of EU top jobs–the Commission President, the European Council President, the President of the European Parliament, the High Representative/Commission Vice President, and the President of the Central Bank.

At the summit, the 28 leaders avoided naming candidates for specific positions but emphasized how they envision fulfilling their obligations under the EU treaties and striking a balance demographically, by gender, as well as politically in view of future alliances. Current European Council President Donald Tusk was given the mandate by the EU 28 to consult the member states and the European Parliament about these top positions. According to Tusk, the Spitzenkandidaten system, which entails nominating one of the “lead candidates” from the election who can win a majority in Parliament, would not be the default way to decide the Commission presidency. At the same time,Tusk also emphasized that the Commission President must have a “genuine mandate from the people”.

The Spitzenkandidat system is not written into the EU treaties, but is rather an interpretation of a treaty provision requiring the Council to select a nominee “taking account” of the results of the European Parliament election. It is therefore not surprising that European Parliament has called for the Spitzenkandidaten system to be respected. With the exception of the Liberals group (ALDE), the major political groups want the Council to respect the role of the European Parliament in their mandate for the next EU executive.

The race to Commission President would involve lots of political maneuvering given the new configuration of the groupings in Parliament. On Monday (27 May) French president Emmanuel Macron met Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in Paris to build a “progressive” alliance. However, Macron needs to find a way to bring the Spanish Liberals Ciudadanos, who has refused to form a coalition with Sanchez’ Socialist party, to the table.

Macron has been a vocal opposition of the Spitzenkandidaten system and is expected to block Weber’s appointment. Weber is the lead candidate of EPP. Although the EPP secured 178 seats, they have only a slim majority in this Parliament while the socialists and liberal grouping—comprising the Socialist and Democrats (S&D), ALDE, Macron’s Renaissance list, and the Greens–will hold more than 320 seats altogether. This means it is much less certain that Weber will succeed Jean Claude Juncker as the President of the Commission.

The largest endorsement for Weber comes from Angela Merkel but she has taken a safe stance saying that she “naturally, supports Weber” as all parties are standing behind their own candidates. Meanwhile, Weber has lost the support of Austrian PM Sebastian Kurz’ due to his ousting in his own government as well as Viktor Orban’s. Orban’s party, Fidezs has been suspended from the EPP.

The Socialists are also standing behind their lead candidate Frans Timmermans. Another possible candidate is EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, also from the EPP. Macron and his Renaissance list is in support of Barnier’s bid. However, Green Party candidate Ska Keller stressed that only those who ran in the elections should be considered for the job.

While the Liberals have not released a nomination, one of their leading contenders is Danish competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager.She has declared her desire to become the Commission President. EURACTIV predicts that as EPP and S&D fight over allies, ALDE’s Vesteger could become the key to forming a majority coalition.

 

Post-elections: shifting alliances and friends in unlikely places?
In the wake of the recent elections, the major pan-European groups are scrambling to form pivotal alliances in a parliament that is more fragmented than ever. The European Parliament’s (EP) traditional majority groups – the European People’s Party (EPP) and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – suffered heavy losses. Despite still being the two biggest groups, they failed to win a clear majority, spelling an end to the de facto coalition that once dominated parliament. Having fallen short of the 376 seats required to form a majority bloc, both parties will have to turn to other groups such as the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group (ALDE) and the Greens for support to push through any legislations.

Why are these alliances important? Partnerships in and between the pan-European groups will be instrumental in accessing greater funding and longer speaking slots in parliament sessions and for centre and liberal groups to contain the influence of far-right populist groups. Should the EPP and S&D be able to form an alliance with the Liberal and Green factions, they would be able to secure a strong majority of 67.2% of the seats. However, the likelihood of such a coalition will be tempered by existing ideological and policy differences between these players.

The unexpected gains made by Liberal Democratic group ALDE and the Greens has also shifted the balance of power in the Parliament. Regardless of whether it will be a broad pro-EU coalition or centre-right/centre-left alliance, including ALDE-Renaissance will be vital to gaining a majority.

On 28 May, acting Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez met with leaders of the ALDE group – French President Emmanuel Macron, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. While pushing for a political balance reconciling the demands of the Liberals and Socialists, Macron and Sanchez recognised the need to include the EPP in their discussions, having both met with German chancellor Angela Merkel separately.

On the potential for a far-right coalition, Nigel Farage is said to be in talks with Italy’s far-right League party this week to join Salvini’s alliance. However, a spokesman for the Brexit party was reported saying Farage wanted to maintain a separate Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and will be keeping their options open. For Salvini, who is looking to unite all Eurosceptic groups into a single alliance, establishing a substantial bloc seems unlikely in parliament.

However the final coalitions play out, it will be tedious and long-drawn as the different groups navigate a new balance of power and negotiate differing ideologies and agendas. European Policy Centre’s director of studies Janis Emmanouilidis sums it up best when describing the task of alliance building as “much more complex and cumbersome” compared to the 2014 elections.

 

European Election results does not alter Brexit deadlock
After the crushing defeat by the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats, both the Tory and Labour parties are facing an uncertain political future. Besides the Tory leadership contest, a general election could result if it turns out that no-deal is on the horizon as the majority of Parliament agrees on avoiding this scenario.

Labour is also on high alert as a general election could be a sweep to power for them. Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, makes clear that, “any deal that comes out of this government should be put to a confirmatory referendum” and that Labour would campaign to Remain.

Some Conservative members are already considering other Brexit options than a hardline no-deal. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that forcing through a no-deal Brexit would be “political suicide” and his party would be “annihilated” if there was a general election before Brexit. His comments were targeted at hardliners in his party like Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey who are ready to pull the UK out by 31st October at any cost.

Hunt also suggested creating a new Brexit negotiating team, including representatives from the Democratic Unionist Party, the European Research Group of Brexiteer Tories. He left out the Labour Party because they have not “acted in good faith on this.”

Former UK Chancellor George Osborne, a Conservative himself, has suggested that the only way a future Tory prime minister can stay in office would be to pledge a second Brexit referendum and win the support of the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, Rory Stewart argues for giving the citizens back a say on Brexit. Steward says that a citizens’ assembly of 500 members can do what Parliament has failed to: “step back, put party politics aside and look at a sensible resolution to this”. Steward also hit back at Hunt’s warning by saying that it is akin to over exaggerating the threat of destruction. On a no deal, Steward believes it cannot be ruled out. Health secretary Matt Hancock criticised Boris Johnson for dismissing industry concerns and said he would not pursue a no-deal.

Meanwhile, Johnson is in legal trouble for his claims that the U.K. pays £350 million per week to the EU. The claims, which were proven to be false, were used in his Leave campaign. The lawsuit against Johnson was brought forward by businessman Marcus Ball. The preliminary hearing will take place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court and then will be sent to the Crown Court for trial.

Former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell announced he was expelled from his own party for voting for the Lib Dems. Campbell has been a staunch People’s Vote supporter and cast his own vote in favor of this position, against his own Party stance.

The EU remains constant on their stance that the Withdrawal Agreement in its current form remains the only option for UK to leave the EU. EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier insists that the Irish border backstop is inevitable and can be worked around using alternative arrangements: technology, drones, invisible controls, none of which are currently up for discussion.

Donald Tusk has also expressed that Brexit has been effective in deterring Eurosceptics from attempting leaving the bloc, calling it a “vaccine”. He said the Sunday election results showed that reforming the EU has become the stance of Eurosceptics, which is good news for the EU.

 

National elections (Austria, Denmark, Greece)
The recent European elections have also affected politics at the national level, most notably with snap elections in Greece. At the same time, domestic politics such as the scandal affecting the Freedom Party in Austria may have somewhat dampened the support for the far right at the European election. .

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for snap elections following the European Parliament elections, which saw Greek ruling party Syriza soundly defeated by conservative party New Democracy. New Democracy beat Syriza by close to 10 percentage points, winning 33.12% of the Greek vote. Analysts suggest Syriza’s poor performance was the result of recent tax cuts and bonus pensions, which served as a cutting reminder of austerity measures under Tsipras’ government. This was compounded by the controversial Prespes Agreement, which recognised its northern neighbor as North Macedonia after a longstanding dispute over the name. General elections are expected to be held end of June, four months ahead of schedule.

In Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been ousted after a vote of no confidence in Austrian Parliament. The motion was tabled after his coalition partner – populist far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) – was embroiled in a video scandal. Former vice-chancellor and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache was filmed offering public contracts in campaign donations and control over an Austrian newspaper. This occurred in spite of the strong performance by Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), who won 34.6% of the vote in the EU Parliament elections. Elections are scheduled for September and given ÖVP’s performance, Kurz stands a high chance of re-election.

For Denmark, where national elections are slated for 5 June, a change of government seems less certain following the center-right Liberal Party’s unexpected win in European elections. Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen saw his party clinch 23.5% of the vote, when earlier opinion polls had indicated he would have lost to the Social Democrats. While this may bode well for Rasmussen and his party, analysts note that some parties opposing him in the upcoming election had fared well in the European Parliament elections as well.

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