Habemus presidentem. On Tuesday the European Council finally agreed on a package of Presidents for the EU. German (EPP) Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen will be the European Commission’s next President. France’s (EPP) Christine Lagarde, currently managing director of the International Monetary Fund, will lead the European Central Bank (ECB), arguably the most important of Europe’s top jobs.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel will lead his former counterparts in the European Council. And thanks to this agreement, the following morning the European Parliament plenary could elect Italian socialist David Maria Sassoli as President. The solution to the impasse means that everyone can get to work – but as ever the devil is in the detail. For Europe, there is much more than meets the eye.
Ironically, what many feared would be a triumphal five years for populist right-wing forces could end up as the most leftist European legislature ever. The rise of populist parties across Europe – from the UK down to Italy, and from Spain through France, Germany and Eastern Europe – pushed all other forces to a sort of progressive centre, which centrifuged the others out. The ruling majority to emerge from the Council agreement is a coalition of the Christian democrat EPP, the social-democrat S&D and the liberal ALDE with French President Emmanuel Macron (sitting in Parliament as Renew Europe). The Greens are out, but remain friends. Identity and Democracy, the 5th biggest group, were left without the two Vice-Presidents they could have claimed and will likely be denied any committee chairmanship. Equally ironic is how populists from the East (notably Hungary and Poland) and the South (read Rome) ended up wishing what they mocked: a more European method, to overcome the clogged Franco-German motor of EU decision-making.
This move to the centre has one visible gravitational fulcrum: climate change. Left, right and centre, green ideas are rising, and everyone is talking about it. This is reflected in practice, with ENVI becoming the biggest parliamentary committee and the Greens claiming the chairmanship of the key IMCO and TRAN committees. It will be enshrined in the next Commission programme, which should make the fight against climate change an absolute priority. However, this rise of climate enthusiasm might be plateauing already. Despite demands of a German-led EPP – with its next Große Koalition back home in mind – the Greens were left out of the deal because Macron had his own plans for that political space. The Greens will stay pure, in opposition, but likely less incisive that everyone had anticipated – or feared.
New “good old”
After a vote that saw turnout rise across Europe for the first time in history, a stunning 63% of the Parliament changed. However, beyond the surface there it not much. Yes, for the first time the EU will have two women in top posts – the Commission and the ECB – but they are not exactly the newest kids on the block. Lagarde was the French Finance Minister during the crisis, and IMF Managing Director since 2011. Von der Leyen was – and might still be – Merkel’s top choice for her succession in Germany, has been a Minister since 2003, and is daughter to one of the first ‘eurocrats’ in history (Chief of Cabinet of the first Competition Commissioner, Hans von der Groeben, and then Director General of ‘DG COMP’ in 1967). For more news, one cannot but notice that the winner took it all: the deal brokered by Germany and France put another German at the top, besides the Chair of the largest political group, Manfred Weber (who will also be Parliament President for the second half of the tenure), DG TRADE Director General Sabine Weyand, European Stability Mechanism Managing Director Klaus Regling, European Investment Bank President Werner Hoyer, and the Parliament and Commission administrations heads Klaus Welle and Martin Selmayr. Macron also got his share, with the ECB, and will still designate a Commissioner who will likely have a big portfolio, joining compatriots EPP President Joseph Daul and Brexit-man Michel Barnier in Brussels’s Club of wise (wo)men. The Party of European Socialists’ Chair, Sergei Stanishev, did not get the Parliament in the end, so nothing for the East. Plus ça change…
So, Europe after the elections is veering right, but shifting left, going green and at the same time not moving much at all. The big question thus remains: where is it now and how is it going to move? A Franco-German clash blocked the Council but saved it one last time, as Chancellor Merkel looked away from Berlin and talked to Paris for a moment. Macron started as an EU champion, but in the end fenced for France. A true, recognisable European leadership is still at large. The Parliament is trying to fill that space positioning itself as the beating heart of European democracy. The harsh grilling that President-designate von der Leyen will get in two weeks’ time will demonstrate that. The Parliament’s resentment at the Council’s disregard for the Spitzenkandidaten – an agility it rarely shows in interinstitutional negotiations. But even the Parliament struggles to walk its talk. Nationalistic, egoistic and geographic divisions are straining the coalition and the political groups. Isolation of rising populist and radical forces show there is not enough inclusion. With world powers knocking at our door or closing theirs and people across the continent clamouring for change – be towards managing migration, making taxation fairer, or tacking climate change – Europe should decide what’s behind its gates: a tool in the hands of Member States and its peoples, or a European Union? Unless it can drive change, the EU risks drifting and splitting into irrelevance.