The hunting season has officially been declared in the aftermath of an informal dinner on 28 May between the leaders of the EU after the European Parliament elections, which itself followed an earlier attempt by four parliamentary groups – the European People’s Party (EPP), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/ EFA) and European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) – to pre-empt Council negotiations by reconfirming their resolve for the lead candidate process and were backed by a nominal majority of 439 members.

The European Council proposes a candidate to become the president of the European Commission after taking into account the elections to the European Parliament elections and holding behind-the-scenes negotiations. Insiders question whether a decision will be reached at the 20-21 June meeting, and expect talks to drag on due to serious disagreements.

The rules that govern the vote in the Council will be tested for the first time in the context of the election of the next President of the European Commission: the dual majority system -or double majority, as it is widely known in the European Quarter of Brussels- came into force on 1 November 2014, and only after the election of outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The exception allowing for the possibility to revert to the applicable majority rules prior to that date at the request of a Member State also lapsed on 31 March 2017.

This means that the election of the new President of the European Commission will require the agreement of 72% of Member States (21 countries, that is) representing at least 65% of the population, instead of the lighter majority rule that necessitates 55% of the EU states (meaning 16) that represent, again, 65% of the population, which applies when the Council acts upon a proposal from the Commission or the High Representative. For a blocking minority to be formed, 4 member states that represent 35% of the EU-wide population will have to act in unison, according to the Treaty.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (R) during the round table of a special EU summit in Brussels, 28 May 2019.   EPA-EFE//FRANCISCO SECO
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (R) during the round table of a special EU summit in Brussels, 28 May 2019. EPA-EFE//FRANCISCO SECO

Beyond the population requirement that complicates the calculation, there is also the so-called “Ioannina compromise,” which, post-31 March 2017, allows for a blocking minority also to be formed by “at least 55% of the EU’s population or at least 55% of the number of EU countries” to temporarily oppose a decision to allow the Council to “do all within its power, within a reasonable space of time, to reach a satisfactory solution.”

So far, three camps have emerged: those who have already vehemently opposed the winning party’s Spitzenkandidat, EPP’s Manfred Weber, either because of opposition to the Spitzenkandidaten process or personal disapproval of the Bavarian politician, those strongly in favour of his candidature -essentially, his entire political family, the EPP, minus Hungary’s Viktor Orbán– and the wait-and-see contingent.

The first group, made of those that side against the naming of Weber to the position, currently counts four players: France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Those four states combined represent 26.28% of the European population, which means that the fail to satisfy any of the thresholds under the rules in place. That side may be further weakened by a likely change of government in Greece after early parliamentary elections will take place either on 30 June or 7 July. EPP member New Democracy scored a strong victory in the EU elections and is widely expected to win the upcoming scrutiny. Its leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has decisively sided with Weber. Without Greek Prime-Minister Alexis Tsipras on their side, France, Spain and Portugal will account for 24.71% of the bloc’s citizens.

When it comes to the second group, the EPP counts nine heads of state, those of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Romania and Latvia, assuming that the newly-appointed interim Chancellor of Austria, following the collapse of the Austrian People’s party-led government last week, will follow the former Chancellor’s line: Sebastian Kurz has been known to be one Weber’s most ardent supporters. The only head of state opposing the German is Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, as a result of his temporary suspension from the Christian Democrats and unfavourable comments against him by Manfred Weber, who said that he will neither need the votes of the Hungarians nor want to become president thanks to their votes.

Assuming that Austria sticks with the group, the remaining EPP 8 might have double the number of countries needed for a blocking minority to be formed, but only represent 25.29% of the bloc’s population, falling short of the 35% requirement. Even if Greece is added, that figure will only rise to 27.39%. They do not meet the Ioannina compromise threshold either.

The third group, those who have chosen to sit on the fence for now, can only be defined as a group for the purposes of analysis, and are not expected to act in concert or in a coordinated way.

That leaves the race very much open. There are at least three systemic elements that require attention as negotiations advance. First, the negotiating power of the four parliamentary groups that backed the lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidaten, process on 28 May is diminished by the fact that only two of those are represented in the Council: the Greens/ EFA and GUE/ NGL will not count any head of state among their ranks after the expected departure of Tsipras, who belongs to the latter. Secondly, it remains to be seen whether there will be a common line between parliamentary groups and heads of state that belong to the same family.

Some Prime-Ministers or Presidents might put national interest first, especially when there are three more top jobs at play, that of the president of the Council, the president of the Parliament and the head of the European Central Bank. Additionally, some of them have a personal interest in the first one, the presidency of the Council.

Thirdly, the requirement for greater compromise and more inclusive distribution of top jobs that the new political reality defined by the first three-party- or even four-party-majority Parliament requires, in particular in light of the requirement for parliamentary approval of the next Commission composition, might force all parties involved to act differently, towards a more harmonious solution (the EPP’s immediate reaction, to be read as a willingness to sacrifice everything to keep the presidency of the Commission for Weber runs counter to the degree of flexibility required in such context and does not reflect the position of the victor that the party want to portray).

There is a long way to go until the next Commission President will cross the finish line. Still, a compromise will have to be stricken. That requires a change of mindset, adapted to the new context. To safeguard the project, all parties involved better speedily agree on a new candidate. The task ahead -providing solutions to real concerns- is far more critical to the European construction than institutional, national or personal battles.