Repercussions of the European Elections in Germany

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Results

The 2019 European Elections produced historically poor results for both the centrist mainstays of German politics, the Christian Democratic Union (22.6% down from 30.0%) and the Social Democrats (15.8% down from 27.3%). Contrary to the wider narrative of the populist surge, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) only moderately benefited (11.0% up from 7.1%) from this voter migration. The key winner of 27 May was the Green Party which achieved the second-best result in the country, nearly doubling its 2014 result. The election reflected a renewed interest in politics with voter turnout significantly higher, at 61.4% from 48.1% in 2014. Voters have also shown themselves to be to be more open to new alternatives with smaller parties (most of which are in fact centrist) up across the board. Of these new parties however only the new pan-European movement Volt obtained a seat in the European Parliament.

The fall of Andrea Nahles - the end of the Grand Coalition?

The heaviest repercussions have been felt in the Willy-Brandt House where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) had to come to terms with a halving of its vote. Andrea Nahles, the leader of the party, attempted to shore up her support with an internal confidence vote but decided to resign from all political positions after a sustained wave of criticism within the party. The strength of critique within the party was such a shock to Berlin insiders that there was broad cross-party condemnation of the way it was delivered. The party will now be taken over by a triumvirate of interim leaders until a long-term replacement is found. The next steps will be discussed at the upcoming party leadership meeting on 24 June. While it is now increasingly doubtful that the Grand Coalition will last the full term, it is expected that the SPD will first seek to find new leadership before it makes a decision on whether to withdraw.

Is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer fit to run the CDU?

The CDU has returned a historically poor result in the midst of the transition of power from Angela Merkel to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has already taken on the party leadership. The result is the latest in a series of developments that have cast doubts over Kramp-Karrenbauer’s ability to lead the party. While she has gained plaudits for her efforts to engage the party base and sharpen the socially conservative profile of the party this has led to the CDU shedding moderate voters to the Green Party. Kramp-Karrenbauer has seemed tone-deaf when confronted with critique whether regarding a politically incorrect joke or the party’s track record in government. The latter became a minor political scandal when she seemed to contemplate regulating the expression of political commentary on social media. The continued weakness in polling has called into question her ability to lead the party but a self-critical reflection at the latest party leadership meeting has shored up support within the CDU for now. Given current polling, the CDU is seeking to avoid early elections and has drafted a letter to the SPD appealing to their duty to keep the Grand Coalition alive.

The main challenger to the CDU - the Green Party

The Greens have been the clear winners of the 2019 European Elections in Germany and are consolidating their status as the main challenger to the CDU/CSU for the chancellorship. The party’s ascending trajectory has continued after the 2019 European Elections with the party coming first in a national poll for the first time ever at the start of June (ahead of the combined CDU/CSU). In contrast to the green parties in other EU member states, the Green Party is not a fringe party but has extensive experience in governing at both regional and national level. The party has for instance been governing one of the most prosperous regions in Germany, the state of Baden-Württemberg since 2011, in what was once the deep CDU heartland. It was also the junior partner for the SPD at national level under the last social democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The strength of the party reflects more than the weakness of the CDU and SPD. Environmental protection is now the number one concern for German voters, ahead of social security and peace. In fact, despite the strong showing in the European Elections the Green Party will also be joined by two other ecologically minded parties (Partei Mensch Umwelt Tierschutz and Ökologisch-Demokratische Partei) in the new European Parliament who retained a seat each. The Greens also have a recognisable and charismatic face in former author Robert Habeck. Nonetheless the party will have its work cut out if either the CDU or SPD begins to make inroads again.

What about the rest?

A key focus of observers from abroad has been the performance of the populist AfD, yet despite gains and a result in the double digits (10.5%), the party obtained disappointing results. The leadership had communicated a target of 15-20%. In fact, it performed 2.5% percentage points worse than during the last general elections in 2017. In the context of historically poor results from the main parties, this has been a particularly poor showing. The strategy of closely allying themselves to the Austria’s FPO backfired due their implication in a major scandal just days before the election. The liberal FDP improved on its 2014 result but at 5.4% is far below expectations in the current political environment. Amongst the smaller parties it was the satirical party (die Partei) that most outperformed expectations. It returned two seats and 2.4% of the vote, with support strongest from first-time voters with whom it was the third most popular party. The party had surprising success in making the case for the politically disillusioned to not abandon the election while positioning themselves strongly against populism.

UK’s Presence Creates Headaches for the EU

Many British voters are treating this election mostly as a litmus test for domestic politics with little practical consequence. However, the UK’s participation in the elections will have knock-on effects on important decisions in Brussels, potentially making important decisions harder for the EU. The size of the ensuing mess, and the degree to which the UK contributed to it, could influence EU27 attitudes to the UK’s continued presence in the EU come October.

Key decisions such as the allocation of the President, Committee Chairs and Vice-Chairs in the European Parliament could be complicated by the UK’s continued presence, as could the selection of the President of the European Commission. The UK, which will continue to benefit from all the rights and obligations of an EU Member State, will still be able to influence these decisions, without the legitimacy and long-term interest of other countries.

British MEPs distort European Parliament dynamics

British MEPs will take office as full Members of the European Parliament, but they will only stay until the UK ratifies the Withdrawal Agreement or else crashes out. Neither is likely to happen before the first plenary session of the new Parliament on 2 July, when the President, Vice-Presidents and Committee Chairs of the Parliament are elected. UK MEPs will therefore be in office during horse-trading over key positions in the EU institutions.

French MEP Alain Lamassoure has said he expects the Brexit Party will not “have the decency not to participate”. If Leave-supporting MEPs vote, Remain-supporting MEPs will also want to take part, meaning full British participation in a decision which barely affects the UK.

Furthermore, UK MEPs could then tip the balance amongst the large groups. Labour MEPs will boost the centre-left S&D while the Liberal Democrats will join ALDE, but the centre-right EPP group will lose out thanks to David Cameron’s 2009 decision to take the Conservatives into a new right-wing grouping. This will cut back on the EPP’s winning margin and potentially result in a lower ranking for Committee Chair positions according to the Parliament’s d’Hondt system. Another unintended consequence is that UK MEPs might hand significant leverage to Victor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz delegation, who have long been sitting in the wings of the EPP group, ready to move to a more right-wing group. With the S&D group snapping at the EPP’s heels thanks to additional Labour MEPs, Mr Orban’s party could determine whether the EPP is the largest group in Parliament or not – a powerful bargaining chip.

The far-right/nationalist alliance sought by Italian deputy PM Matteo Salvini could also benefit from the election of Brexit Party or UKIP MEPs, should they join the grouping, helping the Eurosceptics gain a Chair or Vice-Chair position – something they were denied in 2014.

Building the case against extension post-October

Most importantly, the UK government will have a vote on the nomination of the President of the Commission within the Council. UK MEPs can then vote on the nomination through their seats in Parliament, and their numbers may affect the Spitzenkandidat process. The Commission will not take office until 1 November, after the UK is supposed to have Brexited.

Should a clear winner emerge, the UK is less likely to swing the balance one way or another. However, should the decision come down to the wire and the UK’s presence was seen to complicate or delegitimise the EU’s processes - particularly when it comes to selecting the Commission President - this could harden attitudes in the EU about the UK’s half-in, half-out status. Significantly, it may build a stronger case against a further extension come October. EU budget negotiations are due to start in 2020 and these are difficult enough without having to factor in a departing Member State.

Who are the dark horses for the European Commission Presidency?

As Europeans head to the polls, we turn our attention to the possible outcome of next week’s European Council summit, where EU government leaders will begin the process of choosing the next Commission President.

How will they decide?

The Council is required to take into account the results of the election when choosing a candidate, but is not bound by the EU treaties to follow the Parliament’s proposals. The Parliament has sought to assert itself in the appointment process by developing the Spitzenkandidat system, and has suggested that it may reject any potential Commission President that has not campaigned as a Spitzenkandidat.

However, despite technically being the frontrunner, the EPP’s Manfred Weber is not certain to be nominated by the Council – his lack of executive experience and the unwillingness of several EU Governments to follow the Spitzenkandidat process both count against him. Crucially, the EPP is also unlikely to be able to align its potential coalition partners, whether the S&D, ALDE or Greens, behind Weber.

We can reasonably expect therefore that the Council will look elsewhere for their candidate, and look below at some of the outliers who could take over the top floor of the Berlaymont.

Michel Barnier – EPP

The new Commission President is likely to come from the EPP, which is still projected to be the biggest group in the Parliament by a small margin following the election. Barnier came close to the Commission presidency in 2014, when he was beaten in the EPP primary by Jean-Claude Juncker. He has served at both national and Commission level since the mid-90s, and is well-respected across the EU27 for the way he has conducted the Brexit negotiations. With cross-party support in the EP, he would be broadly acceptable as a compromise candidate. He has been careful to avoid describing himself as a candidate but has been campaigning in all but name in recent months, meeting regularly with national leaders and making speeches setting out his vision for the EU’s future.

António Costa – S&D

During the main Spitzenkandidaten debate, Frans Timmermans made an open call for a left/liberal alliance to defeat the EPP’s current majority. If the Socialists, Liberals and Greens cannot unite behind the S&D’s Frans Timmermans, the current Prime Minister of Portugual has been suggested by some as a surprise candidate – but has recently told journalists that he does not plan to take a job in Brussels.

Kristalina Georgieva – EPP

Former Commission Vice-President and current World Bank CEO Georgieva is a strong contender. Although like Weber, she has not held executive office in her home Member State, she was well-respected during the six years she spent in the Commission. There is an expectation that one of the EU presidencies will be held by a woman, and as one of the few outlying candidates from Eastern Europe, her appointment would address the previous lack of diversity in the EU’s top jobs.

Christine Lagarde – EPP

Despite telling journalists that she is not interested in a job in Europe, the Managing Director of the IMF is regularly tipped as a potential candidate for either the Commission or Council Presidency. She has not served in either the European Parliament or Commission, but held three ministerial positions in France before her appointment to the IMF.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt – S&D

Thorning-Schmidt, former Danish Prime Minister, is regularly discussed in Brussels circles as a possible contender for one of the EU’s top jobs. She lost out to Donald Tusk for the Council presidency in 2014, and while she has been reluctant to openly share her European ambitions, she has the credentials to lead either the Commission or Council. Her party is expected to perform well at the Danish national elections in June, which could give her the edge over her liberal rival Margrethe Vestager for a Commissioner post.

Mark Rutte – ALDE

ALDE has long been kingmaker in the European Parliament, and a strong showing in the elections will bolster this position. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has told journalists that he does not intend to go to Brussels, but he has been tipped as a potential compromise liberal candidate, if Margrethe Vestager is unsuccessful in her bid.

Margrethe Vestager - ALDE

ALDE did not nominate a single Spitzenkandidat, proposing instead a slate of seven candidates for the EU’s top jobs, but Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager is considered their main contender for the role of Commission President. During her tenure Vestager has taken on some of the world’s largest companies and is known for her tough stance on tax avoidance, mergers and anti-trust cases. She is well-respected and would be a popular choice in Brussels circles, but her party currently sits in opposition in Denmark, making it less likely for her government to support her nomination.

When will we know?

Council President Donald Tusk called a summit of EU government leaders for 28 May, just two days after polls close. While it is unlikely that the EU28 will agree on a candidate during that first session – Jean-Claude Juncker was not nominated until a month after the elections in 2014 – a small number of frontrunners are likely to emerge. The Council may also use the summit to set out its process for nominating its candidate, in a bid to reassert its power over the European Parliament. If the timeline is similar to 2014, we can expect to see the new President elected by the European Parliament in July and take office on 1 November.

Survival of the Spitzenkandidaten process

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The Spitzenkandidaten, or lead candidates, process was first employed in the run up to the 2014 European Parliament elections, leading to President Jean Claude Juncker’s election. A broad interpretation of Article 17(7) of the Lisbon Treaty enabled the Parliament to assign itself a more active role in the process of appointing the new Commission President, which it argues enhances the democratic legitimacy of the European Commission.

Given that the process is not mentioned in the EU Treaties, no explicit rules exist that need to be followed. For the Parliament - which adopted a resolution urging the Council to follow the process - it is key that a candidate is backed by a majority of MEPs, has been designated as lead candidate by a European political group, and has campaigned for the post ahead of the elections. It is allegedly willing to reject any candidate that does not meet these conditions, yet it is unclear how the Parliament would deal with the possibility of any of the lead candidates failing to command a majority.

Council opposition

The Council, which has traditionally held the exclusive competence of appointing the new Commission President and still holds the legal mandate to nominate a candidate, has criticised the process for intruding on its authority. One of the fiercest opponents of the process has been French President Emmanuel Macron, who argues the system is too restrictive and would always benefit the Christian Democratic EPP, which is historically the largest political group. His criticism is further based on the lack of transnational lists, meaning that a direct vote for a specific Spitzenkandidat can only take place within their respective Member State.

Other leaders have argued that a Spitzenkandidat is no more democratic than a candidate chosen by elected government leaders, including Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel who criticised the process for failing to reach the electorate and argued that that none of his voters would know who the Spitzenkandidat for any of the political groups is. On a similar note Council President Donald Tusk, who will play a key role in aligning governments in their selection of a nominee, argued that the Parliament’s process is less democratic than before as it cuts out one of the two sources of democratic legitimacy involved in the election process. None of the leaders have been willing to exclude the possibility of nominating one of the Spitzenkandidaten for the Presidency, but they have also been unwilling to commit to the process as they do not want to see the Parliament take away their say in determining the political direction of the European Commission. It would therefore not be unexpected for this year’s election to turn into a power-struggle between the institutions.

Manfred Weber’s race to the top

Six political groups have proposed lead candidates (biographies are included in our candidates’ section). The frontrunner is considered to be Manfred Weber, who represents the European Parliament’s biggest political group, the EPP. Weber has been MEP since 2004, and contrary to previous Commission Presidents, his executive experience is limited to chairing the parliament’s EPP since 2014, not having ruled a national government or ministry before.

The EPP is a dominant player in the European Parliament, currently ruling in a Grand Coalition with the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), holding 53% of seats. However, both parties are expected to suffer losses in the upcoming elections and will likely be unable to reach a majority without forming an alliance with additional groups. Weber has so far ruled out working together with the Eurosceptic forces that are likely to strengthen their presence in the European Parliament. Potential alliances would instead include a Grand-Liberal coalition with the liberal democratic ALDE, likely to result in a majority of a mere 6 seats, or a Greens/Liberal coalition with the Greens and ALDE, likely to result in a majority of around 65 seats. 

Significantly, Weber has said he is already holding coalition talks, as a majority will be required to elect the Commission President. However, it is looking uncertain that he will be able to convince potential coalition parties to support his call for Commission President with the S&D and ALDE signalling they won’t support Weber. This criticism he faces partly centres on his lack of experience but also targets his seemingly timid personality, especially given the competition from seasoned government leaders and current Commissioners, the S&D’s Frans Timmermans and ALDE’s Margrethe Vestager. Whether the Parliament is able to form consensus around a single Spitzenkandidat will be key for the survival of the process, which is otherwise likely to be overturned by Council.

Michel Barnier as alternative candidate

In this regard, Weber may also be facing competition from within his own political group, where the EU’s Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier has been named as a potential alternative candidate. Although Barnier has not formally announced his candidacy, he has become a public advocate for European unity and has continued to hold meetings on this with government leaders as well as speeches across the EU, despite Brexit being on hold from the EU side. It would not be the first time that Barnier would be interested in the role, as he also ran in 2014, when he lost within his party to current President Juncker.

Barnier benefits from his close relationships with the EU’s heads of state, as well as the name he has built for himself throughout the Brexit process. Even Macron, who openly criticises Weber, may be more open to the possibility of Barnier as a compromise candidate. This is key, as given France’s dominant role in the EU it would be very unlikely that a candidate would be elected Commission President without Macron’s approval. Moreover, if the outcomes of the elections create a strongly divided European Parliament, the Council will likely use this as an opportunity to override the Spitzenkandidat process and put forward an alternative candidate – and we expect Barnier to be on top of their list.

Council summit 28 May

What further supports the latter assumption is that President Donald Tusk announced that EU government leaders will be holding a summit on 28 May to assign top EU jobs – a mere two days after the elections. This indicates that the Council is planning to stay ahead of the game and is ready to ensure it can exercise its legal mandate of nominating the Commission President. Tusk has stated that he would like the process to be as smooth as possible and that, while he aims to stick to the tradition of nominating the candidate by consensus, he is also ready to take the decision by qualified majority if this is too difficult to achieve.