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Will the new EU be different from the old one?

What do the results of last week’s European elections mean for the European Commission?

What so the results of last week’s European elections mean for the European Commission?

John Redwood

in Features


The European elections on the continent saw a continuation of the decline of the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties. The Christian Democrat grouping lost 37 seats and the Socialist group lost 41 seats. The two old main groups combined no longer have a majority, but need to include the pro-EU Liberal bloc or the Greens to be able to win votes in the new Parliament. Both these groups gained seats, as did a number of Eurosceptic and nationalist parties. The populists are thinking of reorganising themselves, with Matteo Salvini using his win for Lega in the Italian contest as a platform to try to put together a larger and more-cohesive freedom and national democracy grouping. The strengthened voting base of parties that want to limit the EU’s power and change things like the Maastricht budget rules could provide a more effective opposition in a Parliament previously dominated by those who favour more EU-based decision making and power.

The immediate task is to make a series of appointments to the important roles in the EU. The organisation has five Presidents – the President of the Commission or executive, the President of the European Central Bank, the President of the Council of member states, the President of the European Parliament and the President of the Eurogroup. Various new appointments need to be made. The European Commission job is available and is a very powerful post, as the Commission runs the administration of the EU, handles the budgets, has sole right to propose legislation and represents the EU internationally. The European Central Bank needs a new President, which is also a crucial role with the main powers to support and promote the euro currency, set interest rates and run the banking system. The President of the Parliament has some power to guide and represent the Parliament and changes with the Parliament.

Commission President a difficult choice

The person to be Commission President is decided by the Parliament on a proposal from the European Council. It has often gone to the nominated candidate of the party grouping that won the most seats in the Parliamentary election. On this basis, Manfred Weber, the EPP candidate, would be proposed by the Council of the member states. Now that Mr Weber’s group only gained 180 seats in a 751-seat Parliament, there is some political pressure from France, Spain and others not to nominate him. The Council has a majority of member state members from Liberal and Socialist parties. They may wish to seek a nominee more sympathetic to their politics. Together they are also well represented in the Parliament with 318 seats including the Greens, but short of a majority. The Council nominee has to win a simple majority vote in the Parliament to get the job. Mr Weber would therefore need 196 votes from outside his conservative group to win. The Council and Parliament may end up compromising by proposing a spread of parties getting jobs, so there could be a composite deal with the Socialists, Liberals and Greens offered the other two Presidencies available to provide some balance to an EPP Commission President.

Uncertainly is a certainty

All this means we should expect a difficult period of political uncertainty ahead as parties and individuals scramble for the top jobs and try to define a new direction for the EU. There is a majority for the EU project, but it comprises parties of right, left, centre and green which need shepherding. There is a more numerous and more vocal opposition to further centralising and to the tough budget and other rules, but that too will require political skill to pull together some tough and independently-minded national parties. The new Commission President will need to decide whether to steer the EU in the direction of some relaxation of national budget rules and some transfer of powers to member states in recognition of the populist tide, or whether to take the French government advice to press on with greater centralisation of power and a bigger EU budget. The new Head of the European Central Bank will need to decide whether to continue with Mr Draghi’s relatively relaxed money policy, or whether to accept German advice for more “normalisation” on interest rates and the scale of the ECB’s balance sheet.

The likely course of action over the summer is for plenty of news about the disputes but no significant change in current policies of the EU and the ECB. The first battles will be about staffing the powerful institutions of the EU, appointing a new Commission and getting the new political groupings to work. By the autumn it might be clearer if as a result of a new Parliament and new Commission there is to be any major change of policy. As the Parliament is very split with no dominant force, and as the member states governments now have more diverse views about the project it is probably safest to assume change will prove difficult to achieve.

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