Wednesday

18th Jan 2017

Opinion

The EPP: The winner and loser of the EP elections

  • "Guy Verhofstadt actually has a better chance of winning than Jean-Claude Juncker" (Photo: European Parliament)

Few people may recall the mildly successful 1990s film White Men Can’t Jump. Yet one of the film’s most famous quotes perfectly sums up the likely outcome of the European Parliament elections and the selection of the next European Commission President:

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs.”

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All of the latest polling has shown two clear conclusions. The European People’s Party (EPP) will lose seats to the European Socialists (PES) and the EPP will not be able to overcome the numbers on the left by simply aligning themselves with the Alliance for Liberals and Democracy for Europe (ALDE), as they successfully have done in the past.

While two of the three latest polls indicate that the EPP will remain the largest political group in the European Parliament, with approximately 212 seats, a coalition with ALDE, amassing 73 seats, will leave the partnership roughly twenty seats behind that of the left, with the Socialists, the Greens and the Left assuming 209, 45 and 51 seats respectively, totalling 305 seats.

In order for the EPP to retain its leadership of the European Parliament, it will need to court another political group on the right. The EPP has two choices for a third partner: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Europe for Freedom and Democracy Group (EFD).

The latter is an unlikely pairing given its extremist views on many issues and the EFD’s own criticism of mainstream political groups within the Parliament. This leaves the ECR as the only viable candidate to keep the EPP in control; however, the group faces certain election obstacles to even make this a possibility.

While the ECR will obtain the number of seats required to form a political group, they may fall one country short of the seven country threshold its members must comprise, with current projections seeing them winning seats in the Czech Republic, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.

However, the future of ECR is not so bleak. There are many possibilities for the ECR is to recruit new members, particularly from Belgium (N-VA) and Germany (the Alternative for Germany party AfD).

If the ECR is successful in wooing either the N-VA or AfD, the ECR could become the new kingmaker of the European Parliament by giving the EPP the majority it needs. Should the ECR gain both parties as members, it could become the fourth largest political group in the new Parliament. Either scenario will give the ECR a strong position to demand key placements in committees, a few chairmanships and the power to help shape the agenda of the Parliament.

Juncker is a win for Merkel

So how does all of this affect the election of the European Commission President? All the political groups agree on one thing: the next President should either come from the group that wins the most seats or the candidate who commands most support from the political groups.

Given the nature of politics in Brussels, the European Parliament is likely to go with the latter as the difference between the EPP and PES will be relatively small.

If this is the case, Guy Verhofstadt actually has a better chance of winning than Jean-Claude Juncker.

Should a left coalition be blocked, the left will likely rally around one candidate in hopes of salvaging the loss of the Parliament by being able to nominate a left-leaning candidate as Commission President, which will probably be Martin Schulz. In order to overcome the left’s numbers the right will have to do the same.

Verhofstadt is not only more charismatic than Juncker but his policies are more closely aligned with the ECR, as many of its members previously came from ALDE. The ECR, the only major political group to not have its own candidate for Commission President, will look to Verhofstadt in hopes of moderating European regulation and liberalising markets.

Furthermore, the smaller member states have grown uneasy with the dominance of the big five in EU politics, particularly Germany and the perceived German imposition of austerity throughout southern Europe.

While the EPP candidate is from Luxembourg, a Junker win is a win for Merkel. With an EPP coalition in the European Parliament, and an ally as Commission President, Merkel would gain enormous influence in Brussels.

This is an important consideration for member states, which vote on the President of the Commission by a qualified majority. Therefore, the EPP may be forced to abandon its support of its own candidate in order to put a right-leaning candidate in power.

Should the EPP fail to do so and Schulz is elected as President, European politics is likely to become deadlocked with political fighting between the two institutions. The only winners in this scenario would be the consultants and lobbyists in Brussels.

Given the organic mechanism of winning and losing, the EPP will likely win the most seats and form a winning coalition but lose the Commission Presidency nomination. The left will become more united in order to retain some influence in the Parliament. The ECR will eek out enough support to become a major player in Brussels and potentially overshadow its liberal cousins. ALDE’s power in the EP will wane but they can claim the prize of the Commission President.

Because sometimes when you win, you really lose; and sometimes when you lose, you really win.

The writer is a Brussels-based political communications strategist

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