New leadership for Europe

New leadership for Europe

by Pininvest Analysis

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New leadership at the European Institutions (Parliament, executive Commission and Central Bank) is almost expected to disappoint... and could surprise

The complexity of the challenges facing the European continent is reflected in the fragmentation of political representations in Parliament, a mirror image of diversity, multifaceted expectations of the voters and pressing, often contradictory, global developments

The risks to which the world is exposed involve European Institutions as a key player, putting a lie to narrow-minded assertions to 'take back' national power to address global issues

Voting majorities in Parliament could potentially engage euro-sceptics along with established political parties on the base of positive interactions between European and national interests - issue by issue 

European democracy is still fragile and undoubtedly subject to backlash, but might prove to be more urgently needed than ever




At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that pointWinston Churchill, House of Commons, 31 Oct. 1944


With much infighting, backstabbing and - presumably - last minute compromises,  the governments of the European Union (EU) have found common ground to nominate the individuals called upon to head the European Commission (the executive body), the European Central Bank (ECB), Foreign Affairs for the Union, the Council of Ministers (representing each Member government)  and the European Parliament 

Intrigingly, the nominations have not drawn much media coverage, either in the countries of the Union or in the US, except to criticize some of the candidates for reasons of national politics


Democracy, tirelessly...

The complexity of the selection process reflects the intent, balancing the democratic voice of an elected Parliament with Member state representations, elected on national level

  • Far from the simplistic, and untrue, play on technocracy let loose against the national will, dear to extremists right and left, the Commission acts on the mandate given jointly by the Parliament and by the Council representing the Member states
  • Much is to be learned from the political compromises underlying the nominations, as we hope to discuss

Put forward by the Council of Ministers representing the Member states, Mrs von der Leyen, former German Minister of Defence, has been approved on July 16, 2019, as Commission President in a tight vote of Parliament, by the required absolute majority (half of the existing MEPs plus one), a potential veto right formalised in the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) - as 383 members voted in favour, 327 against, and 22 abstained

Agreement has been found by the states to nominate as 'highest vice-presidents' two failed candidates for the presidency, Mr. Timmermans (socialist, the Netherlands) and Mrs. Verstager (liberal, Denmark)

Against the background of the incoming Commission President's preferences, the 27 commissioners will have to fit a subtle puzzle, combining 

  • a degree of personal expertise in the field they will be heading,
  • behind-the-scenes commitments to Member states in allocation of one of the key portfolios (competition, agriculture, energy, budget, trade) in exchange for their support of the slate of institutional presidencies
  • alignment of portfolio mandates with national policies of a state's candidate (Poland's coal-fired energy vs tight EU emission targets puts the Energy portfolio out of reach)
  • and informal alliances between Member states

The commissioners face a tough vetting process of expertise and past performance in the European Parliament, where negative evaluations may prompt a candidate-commissioner's withdrawal, before the entire Commission (including the High Representative for Foreign Affairs) is subject to a single vote of consent by Parliament and formally appointed by the Council of Ministers


Dull compromises...

Though disappointing in consideration of the importance of the institutions these persons will be heading, the indifference with which the announcement has been received is telling

  • Beyond Europe, national governments are forever tempted to entertain a dialogue with European governments, not with Brussel-based institutions and, even in the Union's unique preserve (trade, competition and agriculture), the temptation to circumvent European rules is never far away
  • Europeans themselves, residents of the Union and voters, tend to take an even dimmer view of common European policies, equating trade with globalization (bad) and environmental neglect (worse), competition with attack on national champions (bad) and agriculture with aggression on hallowed food self-sufficiency (a fail-safe vote winner in France)

Of the individuals who, after endless negotiations, passed the post, there is little to say at this stage (probably another reason for fairly neutral media reporting)

  • Each one of them is bound to be weakened by being the umpteenth choice, after many, many equally (or more) worthy candidates
  • Suspicion has been haunting European representatives forever of being chosen not for their expertise but for blandness, leaving the field open for national government manoeuvers


A close look at the selection process itself is significantly more informative, especially if, as we are told, aides went the rounds fielding up to 50 different slates of candidates on their spreadsheets

While the slate known today may not be inspiring, it is a common denominator of 'least annoyance', signaling political priorities and the countries willling to take responsability


Politics and party compacts

Hardly ever making front-page news and carefully circumvented by politicians staking their careers on provocative assertions,  the European Parliament in Strasbourg is in fact the latest embodiment of a deeply rooted parlementarian tradition, embodying the essence of democracy ...

This is why working majorities within the institution are essential to move the Union forward

Following the May '19 elections, political priorities are not as clear-cut as the duopoly of the center-right Christian-Democrats and the center-left Socialists allowed before the May '19 European parliamentary elections

In lieu of the solid majority formed by these two groups, based on deep work in commissions to find common ground, the European Parliament is split four ways, after the powerful showing of the Greens and of the Macron-compatible Liberals - and putting aside the representatives of fringe parties, on the extreme right and the extreme left, who essentially represent themselves

  • Of the (temporary ?) British representation, little can be said, except maybe that, by showing their back-end during the European Ode of Joy, Mr. Farage's Brexit party members suggested that this part of their anatomy was more interesting than their front-end, a stance many might (for once) agree with

In this strictly political perspective, the candidates put forward by the European Council cover all bases - balancing the Christian Democrats (Ms von der Leyen, Commission President) and Liberals in their newish Reform Europe group (Mr Michel, European Council President) with two center-left Socialists (Mr. Borrell, Foreign Affairs Representative and - with responsabilities which may prove to be critical - Mr Sassoli, European Parliament President)...

Except for one glaring miss - the Greens, among the main winners in May’s European elections, formed a parliamentary Group in  alliance with mostly regionalist parties,  and are represented - post-Brexit - by 71 members in Parliament (fourth Group and 10% of seats)

  • without much weight in national governments, Greens could hardly contend with the established political parties for one of the top European responsabilities 
  • with commitments to radical change and setting out a stall of principled opposition to political compromise, advocates of environmental protection garner popular support in precisely the areas closest to European engagement, trade and agriculture

Though commendable and in many ways indispensable, active involvement of the Green parties in European policy may turn out to be hard to achieve - to wit

  • frontal rejection of trade agreements painstakingly negotiated over years (with Canada, with the South American countries of Mercosur)
  • relentless campaigns to ban glysophate, herbicide distributed by Monsanto-Bayer, widely used in agriculture, whose effect on human cells has opened a cottage industry of arguments and counter-arguments


Securing majorities, one at a time ?

Realities by party affiliation are brutal, based on post-Brexit seat count (705)

Keena Barcroft     credit National Geographic 
  • the center-right (EPP - 188 seats - 26,7%) -  center-left (S&D - 141 seats - 20%) coalition, the Parliament's even-keel falling below the 50% bar, is no more
  • any grand coalition is expected to rely on the liberals (RE - 102 seats - 14.5%) or the Greens (71 seats - 10%) - forming majorities of respectively 61% (center-right / center-left / liberals)  and 56% (center-right / center - left / Greens)
  • voting majorities will probably be messy with the center-right EPP stretched to include the Eurosceptic Hungarian Fidesz, liberals associating French state supporters and Northern small state ALDE, the Greens/EFA a motley combination of environmental activists, regionalists, defenders of animal rights and German 'pirates'
  • in this context, one wonders if bundling Eurosceptics in parliamentarian exile is sustainable : splintered across 3 Groups (40 extreme-left / 62 national conservatives / 77 right wing and 24 non affilated (of which 14 members of the Italian 5-Star movement), some of  their members might support - case by case - variable majorities


Although lazy summing of group coalitions appears to leave the center-left as final arbiter of working majorities, more complex and sometimes unexpected coalitions supporting European policies, shared interests of specific countries or global challenges to Europe's future might well emerge


In our follow-up report, we will indeed argue that party affiliations are only part of Europe's democracy at work - 'country compacts' and 'geopolitical compacts' mesh with party compacts every step of the way, forcing the Eurosceptic fringe to choose between principled opposition and the looming global risks exposing their nationalistic credo