Article

The EU’s five presidents

The European Commission worries about migration and the green transition as it looks ahead to European elections in 2024.

| 6 min read

It looks like 2024 will be a year of change for the European Union (EU). Policy is already evolving on budget deficits, EU-level programmes and on border controls. The parliamentary election in June will trigger the need to choose a new European Commission and maybe a new Commission President and to make some further adjustment to public opinion. Meanwhile, the EU is striving to come up with new fiscal controls over member states, to expand its own capacity to act with budget support ­– and to control migration centrally.

The five presidents and the powers of the Commission

The EU has five presidents of its various institutions. The President of the European Court of Justice, Koen Lenaerts, reaches the end of his current term next year. The court is the final arbiter of the treaties and European law and can find against other EU institutions if it wished. The President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, is better known and is responsible for the conduct of monetary policy, bond buying and bank supervision. The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, is responsible (with the MEPs) for relations between the parliament, the European Commission and the other institutions. The Presidency of the EU Council rotates between the member states.

Although the President of the European Commission is not directly elected by citizens, but indirectly by the parliament, it is the holder of this post who is most commonly identified as the President of the EU. The Commission is the executive government of the EU, holding the administrative and regulatory powers, proposing and drafting new legislation, proposing and running the budget and supporting the High Representative (foreign minister).

There have been attempts to devise an electoral link to the post by pan-European party groupings offering a candidate for the role during a European election. Whilst the Commission President in one sense is a very senior official advising the member states, in practice the Commission President can lead, direct and initiate EU government policy. Whilst there are differences of view the majority of member states ministers around the Council tables are in favour of a more integrated and powerful EU, as are a majority of the MEPs from a range of parties.

The European election

Between 6-9 June, EU countries go to the polls to choose a new parliament, which will also affect who forms the European Commission. The Commission President is not a directly-elected post. There are times when parties choose the SpitzenKandidaten process to promote to become European Commission President. Under this process, a European party alliance offers the leader of its largest party as a candidate for Commission President should their alliance gain plenty of MEP seats.

The parliament does not have to vote for the leader of the largest grouping to be Commission President. Ursula Von der Leyen last time emerged as president without leading a party group in the election. The contestants mainly belong to national parties that back them as candidates. The major parties belong to pan-European groupings or alliances. To form a party grouping they must show the support of at least 25 MEPs from at least 7 countries. The main groupings are called:

  • European Peoples Party (EPP) centre-right pro-EU parties.
  • The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Centre left pro-EU parties.
  • Renew Europe Liberals and pro-EU centrist parties.
  • Identity and Democracy Populists and Eurosceptics.
  • European Conservatives and Reformers They favour EU co-operation without more loss of national sovereignty.
  • The Greens.
  • The left Group.

The EU has approved 720 seats for election, 15 seats more than the current parliament. Early forecasts of seats derived from national polls indicate around 170 seats for the EPP and 140 seats for the Socialists, meaning the two main blocs would not secure a majority for a grand coalition between them. The two more sceptical groups could get around 170 seats between them. These figures may well change when campaigns get underway and as more direct polling is undertaken.

Should there to be a surge in votes for the Eurosceptic and nationalist parties it is still likely that the other parties would bury their differences.

Nearer the time markets will be interested in which party and leader is likely to emerge with the largest number of seats, particularly if they wish to replace Ursula Von Der Leyen as President of the Commission. She could survive, given the split in votes likely to continue in the new Parliament.

Should there be a surge in votes for the Eurosceptic and nationalist parties it is still likely that the other parties would bury their differences and come to an accommodation to keep EU policy and integration moving forwards. We assume the new parliament, even with more populist MEPs, will broadly support the current Commission’s policies to make more decisions at Union level, to grow the EU budget and to stress the need for a green transition. EU policy towards migration is hardening under populist pressure in advance of the election and would toughen further if the populists do well.

What does this mean for EU policy?

The EU is halfway through a seven-year budget cycle. It will struggle to get agreement to a major uplift in the way they would like given German dissent over spending levels and the reservations of other northern contributing countries. It will continue with ambitious green transition policies, with Green parties polling sufficiently well to be in some national coalition governments.

The EU is well advanced with talks over a more comprehensive borders and migration policy at EU level, with possible quotas and burden sharing between states along with further strengthening of border policing and physical barriers.

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The EU’s five presidents

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