Was Contentious EU Summit a Harbinger of Things to Come?
Are Deadlocked European Union (EU) negotiations an indication of the bloc’s future leadership and trajectory?
Following European Parliamentary elections in May, EU leaders gathered in Brussels on June 20-21 to discuss appointments to the Union’s top positions. Consensus was hard to find: Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar summed up the mood of the gathering when he quipped at the end of the first day that it is easier to elect a pope.
There are many top positions to fill. Not only must a new European Commission President, European Council President, and European Parliament President be selected, but also the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the president of the European Central Bank.
But this year, EU leaders have to navigate the most fractured Parliament since elections began in 1979, and that is the crux of the problem. Two parties have typically dominated the bloc: the center-right European People’s Party, or EPP, and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, or S&D. Although these remain the two biggest groups in Parliament, each suffered substantial losses with last month’s election. Their duopoly effectively over, both have been forced to compromise.
While the EPP and S&D each lost more than 30 seats, the election saw a gain of 39 seats for the centrist Renew Europe (formerly ALDE) group led by French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche party, as well as a 23-seat increase for the Green Alliance. The largely anticipated populist surge didn’t materialize, but the far-right, largely Eurosceptic grouping, Identity & Democracy, did gain 37 seats, taking them up to 73 in total, with wins for Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France.
The greater distribution of seats across the Parliament’s political parties mean no single party possesses a substantial majority. Furthermore, the EPP on 181 seats and the S&D on 152 are no longer able to combine forces given they are well short of the 376 required to form a ruling coalition. As a result, the composition of the Parliament is roughly split four ways between its traditional centrist groupings, a buoyed liberal group, and the other small representations that comprise of a mish-mash of ideological positions. In practical terms, this may limit the Parliament’s ability to reach consensus on its bread-and-butter work of signing off on EU legislation. More crucially, the result means that each group in the Parliament can lay a claim to the most important EU leadership positions.
This dynamic manifested itself last week as the political parties vied to secure top jobs for their favored candidates. The most lucrative and powerful position up for grabs is the presidency of the European Commission, a post currently held by former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker. Each party has its own justifications for its preferred candidate. For instance, according to the principal of the Spitzenkandidat,a process whereby the presidency is awarded to the candidate from the party with the most seats, EPP nominee Manfred Weber should replace Junker. However, EU leaders are not obliged to follow this rule, and the fact they did not agree on his appointment effectively ended his bid. Along with Weber, Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans (S&D) and Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager (ALDE) made up the shortlist for the top job. Nominees require the support of 21 of the 28 EU leaders to land the position, but current European Council President Donald Tusk admitted last Friday that there was no consensus on any of the three candidates.
Could the contentious leadership race in a newly fractured EU foreshadow difficulties elsewhere? It is important to note that on this occasion, disagreements also spilled over into policy as leaders failed to agree on a 2050 carbon-neutral target. The coal-reliant economies of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary are said to have been the main opponents of the initiative, fearing the financial cost to their respective economies in shifting to greener sources of energy.
Moreover, member states were unable to arrive at a consensus concerning ascension talks for Albania and the newly named North Macedonia. Both France and Germany have pushed back on the idea causing alarm bells to ring in the Balkans where populist sentiments are starting to chip away at the legitimacy of pro-EU voices. One of the few policy concerns the bloc remained united on (except the UK) was the impossibility of reopening Brexit negotiations regardless of whoever wins the current Tory leadership contest next month. Nevertheless, given the UK should have already left the bloc, the fact they even have a delegation of MEPs in the new assembly is emblematic of how disjointed the whole process has been thus far for both sides.
After last week’s inconclusive summit EU leaders decided to schedule another round of meetings in Brussels at the end of the month, on June 30. Yet, given all of the above areas of contention, it remains to be seen whether the bloc can overcome its current state of paralysis or whether this new discontinuity will be the only continuity. What does remains certain, unfortunately, is that the EU is potentially poised for a rocky and turbulent five years.
Charles Elkins, Program Assistant, Regional Security based at the EastWest Institute’s Brussels office. The views expressed are the author's own.