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400 is the magic number: scenarios for electing the next Commission president

Christian Feustel, Senior Policy Analyst at BusinessEurope, gives his personal reflection on how the next President of the European Commission may be chosen:

Let’s be honest: no one really knows what’s going to happen between May and July this year.

The whole procedure of choosing a Commission president – as set out in the Lisbon Treaty – is a novelty for all of us. Talk to three people in Brussels and you will probably get five different opinions on how things will pan out.

So here’s my take: it’s about the number 400. All that matters is getting the support of four hundred Members of the European Parliament. But the route to this seemingly simple objective is far from easy.

Barroso election

The process

On paper it is clear: European political parties are nominating lead candidates; their proposed nominees to take the role of Commission president. After the election – and taking into account its results – the European Council will nominate a candidate by qualified majority voting. Realpolitik means big countries will still have a veto, but smaller countries will lose this right – something that should make the process easier.

Then, the Parliament has to hold an election to approve the nominee. Legally, the nominee needs an absolute majority – the support of 376 MEPs. But to be truly safely elected and credible, he or she needs at least 400 votes. This means that the next Commission president will also be tied politically to this majority: he or she will need to deliver on (at least some) of his or her promises.

There are some predictions of a game of institutional ping-pong between the European Council and the European Parliament, with candidates nominates and then voted down. But I doubt this: Herman Van Rompuy (below), the President of the European Council, is unlikely to go to the heads of state and government and propose a candidate to them – and they will not back that candidate – unless the 400 votes are locked up. The deal needs to be watertight.

Herman Van Rompuy

The scenarios

For the sake of argument – and in the absence of a clear indication of a decisive win for any party in May – let’s assume the centre-right European People’s Party will win the elections and continue to be the biggest single group in the Parliament. Following good democratic tradition in our old European nation states, the candidate of the party gaining the most seats in a parliament has the first stab at forming the ‘government’ (in this case, the Commission).

But only in mid-June, when the political groups have coalesced, chosen group leaders and discussed the various scenarios, will Van Rompuy take the EPP candidate – which seems likely to be the former Luxembourg prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker – by the hand and seek the support of the Parliament.

What happens next?

Scenario 1: The grand coalition

The EPP, the Socialists and the Liberals make a deal on the top posts.

They all get their fair share (Martin Schulz, the Socialist candidate, perhaps becomes High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; the Liberal candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, heads a constitutional convention, or his running-mate, Olli Rehn, heads the Eurogroup).

The three mainstream groups agree to support the EPP candidate and all is settled: the centre-right nominee gets his or her 400+ votes.

Scenario 2: Second chance Schulz

Van Rompuy and the EPP candidate go to see the leaders of the political groups. The EPP has 220 MEPs, and will need at least another 180 votes to see its candidate approved.

Parties to the right refuse support – the EPP candidate is far too ‘pro-European’ for them to back. The Liberals, with 60-80 MEPs, are inclined to back the EPP candidate, but are far from united: only 60% of them can be sure to support the centre-right nominee, leaving him or her well short of the magic number.

So to the Socialists. They still back Schulz. The other groups refuse to back the EPP candidate, too.

With the ‘winning’ candidate unlikely to get a majority, Van Rompuy turns to the runner-up. Schulz is the new proposed candidate, the Socialists having gained seats in the elections while the EPP saw its representation reduced, and the European Council President having recognised that the voters did want change.

This is the scenario that Schulz and Verhofstadt, and the Greens too, have played through again and again. 210 Socialists, plus 40 Liberals, plus 40 Greens, plus 40 far-left MEPs. That brings Schulz to around 330 votes. But where are the remaining 70?

Schulz – already far closer to the goal than the EPP candidate – picks up the German Christian Democrat delegation and perhaps wins over a few other EPP MEPs with policy pledges on the economy or institutional reform. He reaches 400.

This means that Van Rompuy can go to the European Council at the end of June and propose Schulz as the only candidate able to muster 400 votes. Despite the European Council having 20 or so governments with EPP participation, it can do nothing else but back Schulz.

The comments by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, about the winning party not necessarily providing the next Commission president come true – although perhaps not in the way she initially imagined.

Scenario 3: Delay and horse-trading

Both the EPP and Schulz have failed to gather enough support in the political groups. Both are far away from 400. Van Rompuy turns to his compatriot, but Guy Verhofstadt, seen as too avant-garde and too federalist, is a no-go. Back to the drawing board.

In this scenario, the timeline would inevitably be delayed. Both the EPP candidate and Schulz would be ‘in play’, but would have to begin a more lengthy process of lobbying the various different political groups to gather support – and making many promises, not only on policy, but on positions. The victor in these negotiations takes the presidency.

Scenario 4: The European Council refuses to nominate

This last scenario is the most detrimental to the process: based on scenario 1 or 2, one of the leading candidates gathers together a parliamentary majority – but the European Council refuses to nominate him or her for the position.

I believe that this is an unlikely scenario – after all, most of the heads of state and governments are members of the European political parties, and have been involved in the nomination of their top candidates. The EPP, if it accepts Schulz, could conceivably keep its hands on the post of President of the European Council as part of the deal.

However, David Cameron, the British PM, is known to oppose the idea of Martin Schulz becoming Commission president. Positioned outside the main European parties, he has not been involved in the process of selecting a candidate. He represents a big country. And others, mindful of Cameron’s renegotiation plans and anxious not to upset the UK unduly, give in – they are not prepared to defend Schulz at all costs.

Rejecting a candidate that has the support of the absolute majority of a freshly-elected European Parliament would, in my view, be a huge disappointment, and would effectively kill this experiment in European democracy. It would also lead to a stalemate of several months between the European Council and the Parliament, with many unforeseeable consequences.

‘Fringe’ benefits for the Socialists?

One of the big topics of discussion around the European elections is the potential for a large increase in the number of MEPs from ‘fringe’ groups.

In the context of the choice of a Commission president, this is disadvantageous to the pro-European EPP: on institutional issues, it does not have many options to its right, with conservatives and other right-wing groups opposed to deeper integration.

Both sides would struggle to come together to back a Commission president and see their political destinies tied together for the next five years. An EPP Commission president may also struggle to pay back the support of Eurosceptics in his or her new role. Ad hoc alliances to pass business-friendly legislation will happen – but cooperation on institutional issues is highly unlikely.

The centre-left, meanwhile, has greater opportunities to form alliances with the far-left, Greens and some Liberals. Alexis Tsipras, the candidate for the Party of the European Left, has not ruled out backing Schulz – something that makes scenario 2 the most likely outcome in my view. Perhaps this is one reason why many high-profile potential EPP candidates are reluctant about throwing their hat into the ring.

Still room for old-style horse-trading

While the Commission presidency has this new democratic dynamic, the selections of candidates for the other top posts will be ‘behind-closed-doors’ affairs. If Schulz takes the Commission presidency, we could see an EPP candidate getting the post of President of the European Council (where the centre-right is still the biggest grouping), a Liberal foreign minister, and maybe a move for José Manuel Barroso, the current Commission President, a few kilometres down the road to become Secretary-General of Nato.

The ‘horse-trading’ will begin already the day after the elections, if not before, as the profiles of the potential candidates will have to match the unofficial conditions of a balance of nationality, party colour, East-West, North-South, and gender.

Van Rompuy will surely consult privately before anybody even shows up at a polling station. And a special summit has now been convened for the evening of 27 May – the first night of the long knives? And now, the Parliament plans to hold a ‘counter-meeting’ on the morning of 27 May – European power games at their best…

Speculation will continue, deals will be made – but come May and June, 400 will be the magic number.