June 2019

By Mathilde Defarges and Etienne Bodard

Jeremiah Baronberg contributed to this article

This May, citizens of the 28 member countries of the European Union went to their national polls to vote for political parties to represent them in the central legislative body of the EU, the European Parliament. The 2019 EU elections were the world’s second largest vote-casting, taking place in the second largest democracy and the world’s second largest economy.

EU elections are often seen as more of a national political exercise rather than a collective EU referendum. But the 2019 elections saw over 50 percent voter turnout— the highest in two decades—suggesting this election was among the most consequential in years.

As we wrote in our pre-election preview, the elections were a bellwether for the EU’s political direction in the coming decade. The main results were historic losses by traditional, mainstream parties balanced by significant gains by liberal, green, and Eurosceptic parties. The results portend increasingly divergent views over the extent and relevance of European integration—and reflect a growing fragmented, even polarized political landscape. The immediate short-term will see intense power negotiations between the political groups aimed at building a new parliamentary governing coalition.

This coming negotiation phase is a critical time and will have direct bearing on the key governing institutions of the EU and its new top leadership—particularly among the EU Parliament, Commission, and European Council.

Key Outcomes

The primary takeaway from the 2019 election was the effective collapse of the center-left/center-right coalition that has governed European politics for the past four decades. For the first time since 1979—when the first European parliamentary elections were held—there will be no majority coalition between the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) party. Instead, significant gains were made by a diverse variety of interests, including environmentalist (Greens), pro-EU centrist liberal (former ALDE group, now called Renew Europe), Eurosceptic, and far-right anti-establishment parties.

Although the gains made by anti-European parties were not as extensive as some anticipated, the fall of “status quo parties” in favor of more disruptive voices suggests that voters are no longer satisfied with “business as usual.” Indeed, the Greens and the Liberals—former outsiders—intend to play a kingmaker role in the new EU parliament, as the center-right and center-left will need to rely on either one—or both—to get their agendas passed.

The implications of this extensive reshuffling to the formation of specific European policy positions remains to be seen. What is certain is that it will significantly affect the distribution of power and policy centers within the European Union, including leadership of the European Commission, which proposes and enforces legislation and of European parliamentary committees.

Building a New Coalition

As a result of the center governing coalition’s loss of seats, a new and broader coalition will have to be built. Such a coalition may prove difficult to form, given the groups’ diverse, sometimes opposing visions. The most likely scenarios for a new coalition include:

  • A broad coalition comprised of the EPP, S&D, ALDE/Renew Europe, and Greens representing over 67 percent of seats. In this configuration, a majority could be easily identified on each issue debated in parliament regardless of objections by national delegations.
  • A centrist coalition (EPP, S&D, ALDE/Renew Europe) representing 58 percent of seats. This coalition has the disadvantage of leaving out the Greens despite their impressive showing in the election and thereby reinforcing their potential obstructionist tendencies in parliament.
  • A smaller coalition (EPP, S&D, Greens) representing 52 percent of seats, but leaving out the ascendant ALDE/Renew Europe group, which includes members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party. Such a weak majority coalition could prove unstable should certain national delegations choose to disassociate from it, complicating its agenda.

It is worth noting that President Macron seems determined to play the role of kingmaker in creating a coalition and appears unlikely to be marginalized.

Shake-up among National Delegations

This new political landscape is also marked by a shake-up in the balance of power among national delegations within the various political groups—directly impacting key functions within the EU parliament, including committee presidencies, political groups coordination in each committee, and overall agenda setting.

For example, while Germany will maintain its strong influence within the EPP and Greens groups, it has lost standing within the S&D group, where its incumbent chair is now being challenged by Spain, now the largest delegation within S&D. France’s influence was also affected by the election, where its strength within the EPP and S&D groups has been significantly diminished, although it will retain its stronger positions within the liberal ALDE/Renew Europe and Greens groups.

These redistributions will directly impact key functions within the European Parliament, including the so-called “d’Hondt method” for distributing chairmanships of parliamentary committees and delegations, as well as the distributions of posts among national delegations within the political groups.

In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to assess the relative influence of each political group and national delegation across the EU parliament’s key functions, particularly among committee chairs and coordinators. So-called “old” EU member states—Germany, France, Spain, Italy—can reasonably expect to assume several influential functions under the new arrangement, as can some of the EU’s relatively newcomers, such as Poland and Romania, should they play their cards right.

Forming a New EU Commission and Electing New Presidents

The formation of a new governing coalition in parliament is also essential for the election of the parliament’s new president as well as for the appointment of a European Commission president—the EU’s executive—which directly impacts the EU’s work program and policy agenda. Since 2014, the Commission president has been appointed according to the EU’s so-called “Spitzenkandidat process,” aimed at ensuring that European voters “not only elect the parliament itself, but also have a say over who would head the EU executive.” In this case, Germany’s Manfred Weber of the EPP—the election’s leading vote-getter—should be automatically appointed president.

Instead, immediately following the election, the 28 EU Member States agreed to empower the European Council to propose a Commission presidential candidate to be elected by the parliament—suggesting that there would be no Spitzenkandidat “automaticity.” (Notably, President Macron is one of the strongest opponents of the Spitzenkandidat process, especially against EPP candidate Manfred Weber.) In the event that Spitzenkandidat is not strictly followed, several outsider names are currently being discussed for president, including Frans Timmermans (PES, Netherlands), Michel Barnier (EPP, France), Margrethe Vestager (ALDE, Denmark), and Kristalina Gueorguieva (EPP, Bulgaria). Notably, President Macron stated that he would support Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel for Commission president, “should she want it.”

After the European Commission president is elected, each EU Member State will make its proposals for EU commissioners. On this basis, the new Commission president will distribute portfolios among the candidates, thus proposing a new “College of Commissioners,” subject to approval of the parliament. Nominations for the Commission’s key positions, including High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (currently held by Italy’s Federica Mogherini) will be closely scrutinized. Among the names being discussed include Josep Borrell, currently Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and former president of the European Parliament and Frans Timmermans from the Netherlands, if he fails to be appointed as president of the European Commission.

In addition, according to current Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, half of all EU commissioners should be women.

Finally, a new European Council president—a principal representative of the EU on the world stage—will also need to be elected to succeed Poland’s Donald Tusk. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte are among the most discussed candidates. A new president of the European Central Bank will also be chosen—Germany’s Jens Weidmann, France’s Benoît Coeuré and François Villeroy de Galhau, and Finland’s Olli Rehn and Erkki Liikanen lead the list of discussed candidates.

The present stage of negotiation for the new coalition will last until December 1, 2019.

Stay tuned as we continue to follow these developments.

EU Presidents – Who Does What?

The 3 main institutions of the EU are each headed by its own president.

European Commission president

  • Gives political guidance to the Commission
  • Calls and chairs meetings of the college of the Commissioners
  • Leads the Commission’s work in implementing EU policies
  • Takes part in G7 meetings
  • Contributes to major debates both in the European Parliament and between EU governments in the Council of the European Union

European Council president

  • Leads the European Council’s work in setting the EU’s general political direction and priorities – in cooperation with the Commission
  • Promotes cohesion and consensus within the European Council
  • Represents the EU externally on foreign and security issues

European Parliament president

  • Ensures parliamentary procedures are properly followed
  • Oversees Parliament’s various activities and committees
  • Represents Parliament in all legal matters and in its international relations
  • Gives final assent to the EU budget

Key Dates

  • 20-21 June 2019: European Council, negotiations on the candidate selected by the Council for the presidency of the next European Commission.
  • 2 July 2019: Inaugural session of the newly elected European Parliament. Election of the President of the European Parliament (by qualified majority), 14 vice-presidents and 5 Quaestors.
  • 3 July 2019: vote of the European Parliament plenary on the number of parliamentary committees created and the political composition of these committees (distribution of seats among the political groups). 
  • 4 July: vote of the European Parliament plenary on the members of each of the parliamentary committees. 
  • July 8, 2019: election of the executive (chair, vice-chair) of each parliamentary committee.
  • 15 to 18 July 2019: 2nd plenary session of the European Parliament. The European Parliament could vote to confirm the appointment of the President of the European Commission, proposed by the European Council. 
  • 16-19 September 2019: 3rd plenary session of the European Parliament. Possible vote on the appointment of the President of the European Commission (if this vote did not take place in July 2019).
  • September/October 2019: Hearings of the candidate commissioners by the standing committees of the European Parliament. 
  • 21 to 24 October 2019: plenary session of the European Parliament. Vote of the European Parliament on the new College of the European Commission.
  • 31 October 2019: official end of the Juncker Commission (2014-2019) 
  • 1st November 2019: taking office of the new European Commission (2019-2024) and the new President of the ECB (2019-2026)
  • November/December 2019: presentation of the 2020 work programme of the European Commission.
  • December 1st: taking office of the new President of European Council.