The EU year of change: Act 2

The European Elections are over; the contest to lead Europe is about to begin.

When the provisional results of the European Parliament elections, one of the world’s largest democratic exercises, landed on Sunday evening, they told us the will of the voters and ushered in the next phase of the EU’s year of institutional change.

We know the 720 MEPs who will make up the next parliament. But no official decisions have been taken yet on who will be the next president of the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, nor who will guide future meetings of EU leaders, as president of the European Council.

We also don’t know with certainty who will be the EU’s next foreign policy chief, nor the roster of Commissioners, one per each member state, who will take on the EU’s different ministerial policy briefs.

Because of this, the year of change is as much associated with EU leaders being holed up in a Brussels building resembling a giant glass Easter Egg haggling over top jobs decisions, as it is associated with results pouring in from ballot boxes all over Europe on election night.

The strong first-place finish of the centre-right European People’s Party in the elections has bolstered the cause of Ursula von der Leyen, the current Commission president, to secure a second mandate – given she ran as the party’s lead candidate.

Equally, the leadership of the Commission will be an integral part of discussions already underway between different political group chiefs in the parliament, as the EPP seeks to forge majority support to approve von der Leyen in a confirmation vote. Any incoming Commission president must win absolute majority support from MEPs in a secret-ballot vote – so 361 MEPs out of 720.

These developments on one-side of the Brussels European quarter will happen in parallel to EU leaders entering the picture. The 27-nation bloc’s leaders – Emmanuel Macron of France, Olaf Scholz of Germany, Donald Tusk of Poland and their counterparts – are set to discuss top jobs over dinner on 17 June (after several of them probably already grab a word on the matter in the margins of this week’s G7 summit).

After that, they will convene in Brussels on 27-28 June to hammer out a deal on a package consisting of a Commission President, a Council President and a High Representative for foreign affairs.

No two EU years of institutional change are the same. Already, we know that this one will go down into the history books as the European Election that led French president Emmanuel Macron to call France’s first snap legislative election for close to 30 years – fundamentally altering the context of the decisions to come.

But nonetheless, it’s useful to look to the past as a barometer for what lies ahead. And 2019 was one of the most gruelling top jobs negotiations that any generation of EU leaders has endured.

The puzzle they needed to solve was unusually complex: the EU’s different political families had run “lead candidates” in the elections, but none was able to rally anything close to overwhelming support from national leaders to become European Commission president.

At the same time, there was no incumbent Commission president seeking reappointment; so continuity was not an option.

And even the fundamental matter of which posts were under discussion seemed fluid: a rare alignment of institutional calendars meant that a European Central Bank president also needed to be chosen, while the European Parliament presidency faded in and out of the conversation as politicians sought levers to balance a deal.

The upshot was multiple summits, and exhaustion: the decisive summit meeting involved fifty hours of negotiations, including an all-night session. Whispers still circulate in Brussels regarding which politicians received phone calls in the middle of the night, or at the break of dawn, to be told by a sleep-deprived prime minister or president that they were suddenly the surprise choice for Commission President – the full truth may never be known; but the list includes names known across the continent.

In the end a package was built around a politician whose name had not been in the picture at all when EU leaders marched past journalists on their way into the summit: Ursula von der Leyen.

This year, the geometry is quite different, and probably simpler. Von der Leyen, the incumbent, is very much in the running; and Christine Lagarde, at the ECB, has several years left in her mandate.

But key underlying considerations are the same – the importance of a sharing out of posts among the EU’s principle political forces; the need for a degree of regional balance; an emphasis on gender balance.

And, crucially, the need for everyone round the table to feel like they have won – that what has been decided means the interests of their country are protected: that they have their hand on the wheel, and a sufficient degree of affiliation with (and perhaps commitments from) the EU’s new institutional leadership.

The EU year of change is at least a four-act play: an election; a top-jobs negotiation; a parliamentary confirmation of the Commission President candidate; and then configuration of the new Commission College, whose members – the national commissioners – go through their own parliamentary confirmation process.

Act 1 is over; it’s time for Act 2.