The Realities of the European Council

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Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron (R) leave after a special EU summit on Brexit at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 11 April 2019.

The Realities of the European Council


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The nomination for the next President of the European Commission is dominating political analysis in Brussels and beyond. Most focus on the European Parliament’s elections, which is understandable as it is the new legislature that will have to carry the nominee through, irrespective of whether the much disputed lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat, process will hold or not.

The treaties stipulate that the nomination of the European Commission president remains the prerogative of the European Council. With parliamentary or presidential elections taking place in ten EU member states this year, which could affect such vote as well as the nomination of Commissioners, and political instability in a significant number of countries, the European Council should not be overlooked.

Shifts there could result in major changes in the balance of power.

The European People’s Party currently counts nine heads of state in its family, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe has eight, the Party of European Socialists counts five, the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe has two, the Party of the European Left only has one, whereas two heads of state are independent.

Theoretically, the fact that power is more upwardly and highly concentrated than the more representational distribution of strength in the European Parliament means that it will be easier for a majority of 72% of the Member States that represent 65% of the bloc’s population to be reached.

That threshold is higher than the parliamentary requirement for an absolute majority on this matter. This means that, similarly to the state of play in the European Parliament, under any scenario at least a three-party coalition will be needed to reach a majority, which, at the same time, will also need to include the EPP.

More than that, there are additional hidden risks and caveats, both when it comes to the vote for Commission President and the nomination of the Commissioners. Below, we examine where each party stands, country-wise:

The EPP currently has nine heads of state, from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Romania and Latvia. Our country-by-country analysis goes as follows:

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Austria: a majority two-party coalition seems rather stable. No surprises are expected here.

Bulgaria: a majority coalition of two parties is at the borderline. The one-member majority that the government led by Boyko Borisov enjoys is numerically extremely fragile, a precarious condition augmented by the inherent instability built in Bulgaria’s political culture. The prime minister appears politically weakened. A weak showing in the European Parliament elections could increase calls for fresh national legislative elections or leave the embattled leader open to political blackmailing by smaller parliamentary forces when it comes to the nomination of the Bulgarian commissioner. Even if national elections are held, expect high instability as there is little chance that the scrutiny will produce a conclusive result in the form of a stable government.

Croatia: Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, a former MEP, leads a two-party minority coalition. There is moderate to low risk of a surprise, though. What could only be affected is the Commissioner’s nomination, which might force the prime minister to agree to a nationally-accepted figure that does not from within his own party.

Cyprus: largely thanks to its presidential system, there is little to no chance of a change before the nomination of the new Cabinet of Commissioners.

Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel leads a seemingly stable coalition between her own CDS and the Social Democrats. However, given that she has already announced her retirement, which in itself adds a degree of instability to the political system, and the expected devastating results in the European elections for her coalition partner, the SPD, it would not be unthinkable to imagine some turbulence. It is the risk-averse, stability-inducing reflexes and mechanisms of the German political setup that makes us give the country a moderate to stable outlook, despite previous and current troubling -for the standard of the country- signs.

Hungary: Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s supermajority looks unshakable. This could as well be the most stable government in the Continent.

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Ireland: An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar leads a minority government. Brexit and its effects on the island of Ireland could produce volatility at any point. There also seems to be a continuous emergence of scandals. In spite of relative stability, all possible scenarios should be given consideration.

Romania: Incumbent President Klaus Iohannis, up for re-election in November this year, enjoys an advantage in the polls. However, jurisdiction over foreign affairs, including Council representation, has been disputed in the past, in the president’s favour. That will not stop the Socialist-led government, currently leading a fierce campaign founded upon polarization, is expected to challenge President Iohannis’ authority at every corner. On top of that, it is the government that nominates the Commissioner.

Latvia: in the aftermath of political instability following inconclusive parliamentary elections last October, Krišjānis Kariņš of EPP member Unity was appointed prime minister in January. However, he leads a five-party majority coalition of centrist and right-wing parties, of which his own is the smallest of the five in the Saeima. That creates significant instability that could at least impact the Latvian Commissioner’s nomination.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe currently numbers eight heads of state, in Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovenia. We have added to that list President Emmanuel Macron of France, given his political and ideological leanings and increased cooperation with the ALDE family, calling this group, for the purposes of our analysis, ALDE+. Here are how things stand:

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Belgium: federal elections are scheduled to take place on the 26th of May, the day of the European Parliament scrutiny. With thirteen parties expected to enter the Federal Parliament, and dwindling support for Prime Minister Charles Michel’s Reformist Movement, it remains highly unlikely that he will be in a position to repeat the same feat. The role of his three-party minority government has been reduced to that of a caretaker. Post-26th of May expected instability and prolonged horse-trading that will include everything: from the nomination of the Commission President to that of the Belgian Commissioner, a position that will be part of the coalition-building calculus, not unlike what happened in the summer of 2014.

The Czech Republic: ANO Prime Minister Andrej Babiš leads a two-party minority coalition, propped up by the Communist Party. Last week, Czech police recommended that charges be filed against him, upon the conclusion of an investigation into EU funds fraud. His immunity has been lifted by Parliament before, as Babiš voted in favour. A potential conviction, or even prosecution, could make his tenure untenable, let alone his ALDE membership.

Denmark: national parliamentary elections must be held in the country before the 17th of June this year. They could as well be held concurrently with the European Parliament elections, one scenario goes. The Social Democrats lead in the polls but that does not necessarily point to a change of guards: Socialdemokraterne won the 2015 scrutiny but were unable to fall a government, a task that fell upon third-positioned Venstre’s leader and PM-in-office Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who leads a minority three-party minority coalition. All options are open; the likelihood that ALDE will manage to keep this prime-ministership is equally strong to any other political family’s chances.

Estonia: coalition-building following national elections on the 3rd of March has worked to incumbent Prime Minister Jüri Ratas’ favours: Riigikogu, the country’s assembly, has given him the green light to form a new three-party majority coalition government, not unlike the alliance he has government with from November 2016 until March.

Luxembourg: Prime Minister Xavier Bettel’s second three-party majority coalition seems rather stable, bar for a major realignment of forces port-European Parliament elections.

The Netherlands: The Third Rutte Cabinet, in place since October 2017, was formed following a four-party coalition agreement, which commands a majority of one in the Parliament. That razor-thin majority, Rutte’s apparent desire to switch to a European Council role, and a possible upset at the European Parliament elections are causes for concern. All coalition parties are currently polling at equal or higher levels compared to the 2017 national election results. However, there is a game-changer: Rutte’s VVD is no longer polling first. Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy, an ECR member founded in 2016, won March’s provincial elections and recent polls give it a 5-point lead to Rutte’s VVD. Expect some turbulence.

Slovenia: Behind Prime Minister Marjan Šarec’s cabinet, which was appointed last October, is a four-party minority coalition, the first ever minority government in the country. That could imply instability. However, LMŠ, the party of the prime minister, enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls, with its percentage rising from a mere 12.60% in the 2018 elections to 30% currently. Surprises cannot be excluded, though.

France: the country’s presidential system comes with an enhanced stability.

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The Party of European Socialists commands a team of five heads of state. The Maltese, Portuguese, Slovakian, Spanish, and Swedish prime ministers belong to the Social-Democratic family. We have also chosen to include Finland in the count, for reasons explained below:

Malta: The island country’s bipartisan system tends to facilitate strong majorities. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s Labour government is no exception: with 37 out of 67 members among its ranks, the majority is compact and comfortable enough for the Maltese government to be one of the European Union’s most stable, if not the most stable. No surprises expected here, in spite of recurring scandals.

Portugal: Prime Minister Antonio Costa has been leading a minority government since November 2015, without the occurrence of any significant mishaps. More, Prime Minister Costa’s PS enjoys a lead of 12% from the second-ranked party. No change is expected until elections will take place on the 6th of October this year. However, the result could be a hung parliament, similar to the situation in 2015. Depending on the timing of the nomination of the European Commissioners, which itself depends on a parliamentary majority being formed in favour of a presidential candidate, that trophy position could create friction, especially if the centre-right parties unexpectedly find their poll to be on the rise.

Slovakia: despite the fact that the winds of change have blown a different way than the government’s, that does not mean that the government’s ship has sailed. The recent election of an independent president complicates things for Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini’s three-party majority coalition government, but it is not expected to go before parliamentary elections that will have to take place by March next year.

Spain: President of the Government Pedro Sánchez has been leading a minority government since June 2018, following the first ever successful motion of no confidence in Spain’s modern democratic history, against Mariano Rajoy. Snap legislative elections are taking place across Spain today, less than a year since the Sánchez cabinet took over, as a result of increased instability. The result is not expected to produce an outright majority government. However, Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has been polling at a two-year high, within the range of 30%, and has significantly recovered since a defeat in Andalusia, a Socialist stronghold, last December. The main centre-right party, EPP member Partido Popular, has seen its number drop to an almost two-year low, and so has Ciudadanos, the liberal centrist party that is a member of ALDE. The only other formation that has seen its numbers rising is the right-wing populist VOX party, which is being courted by both the ECR and Salvini’s newest nationalist alliance. Together with Partido Popular and Ciudadanos, they might just be able to give Spain a new centre-right government. The alternative will be for PSOE to ally -or be held hostage by, as the right alleges- with smaller left-wing formations, including separatist Catalan parties. Pundits are betting on the latter version.

Sweden: Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s second cabinet, installed on the 21st of January this year, is a two-party minority coalition government that only commands 33% of the seats in the Riksdag, relying heavily on other formations. Any election -and power differentials that any such event could produce- could upset such a fragile government. For now, polls suggest that the balance of powers will not significantly change post-26th of May, but Sweden should brace itself for the bumpy ride ahead.

Finland: following elections on 14 April, the Centre Party’s outgoing Prime Minister Juha Sipila has stayed on in a caretaking capacity. Theoretically, that makes it an ALDE government. However, the Chairman of the Social Democrats, Antti Rinne, has won a mandate to lead coalition talks, thanks to his party’s narrow lead -at 0.2%- over the populist Finns Party. His election as speaker of the parliament last Wednesday confirms his strong chances of becoming the country’s next prime minister (he is expected to resign the speakership once he accedes to higher office). A government is expected to conclude by 27 May -an otherwise self-imposed deadline- to give the next cabinet sufficient time to prepare for the country’s assumption of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on the 1st of July. Thorny issues remain, in particular when it comes to economic policy and the participation of the Finns Party in the government, which remains a possibility. In the following weeks’ horse-trading, Finland’s Commission President preference and especially the nomination of the next Finnish Commissioner could become bargaining chips.

The Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe can claim to heads of state among the EU-28, and one less upon the materialisation of Brexit – the Polish and British Prime Ministers.

Poland: Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s cabinet commands a comfortable majority in both houses, making it one of the most stable in the Continent. Elections are due in November this year, but this seems unlikely to upset Poland’s positioning in the European Commission. The difference between the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party and the second-seeded Civic Platform (PO) currently stands at 19%, when it comes to the national election preferences. The only source of an upset in the autumn could be a potential alliance of all or most other political forces, which is what is happening in the European Parliament campaign, where the European Coalition (KE) list of twelve parties, including main opposition party PO, are breathing down PiS’ neck at 35% to the governing formation’s 40%. Only a victory for the opposition could through doubts to Morawiecki’s reelection chances. Even in that case, that will not be enough to destabilize the government before the end of its mandate.

The United Kingdom: theoretically, British Prime Minister Theresa May is bound by a “gentleman’s agreement” under the terms of the latest Brexit extension to abstain from important decisions, including the selection of the next Commission president. Whether she or her potential successor will abide by it remains to be seen. In any case, a weak minority Conservative government, kept in place by a “confidence-and-supply” agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is prone to volatility, which is further exacerbated to the extreme by Brexit.

The Party of the European Left counts one head of state, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, its 2014 Spitzenkandidat. His minority government won a motion of confidence by 151 votes out of a total of 300 members on 16 January and relies on an assortment of independents following the departure of Independent Greeks (ANEL) from the governing coalition three days prior to that vote. National parliamentary elections must be held on or before 20 October. Main opposition party, EPP member New Democracy, has been leading in the poll by a double-digit margin since January 2016, only a few months after the September 2015 elections. Two questions remain: the timing of the elections, which could affect the nomination of the next Greek Commissioner, and whether New Democracy will be able to form either a majority government outright or a majority coalition. A catastrophic result for Tripras’ Syriza in May could or could not prompt elections before the end of this legislature’s four-year term in May. Greece seems to be the country of all possibilities.

There are two independent heads of state in Europe, in the sense that they have no official affinity to any of the political groups: the Prime Minister of Italy and the President of Lithuania:

Italy: Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been leading a majority two-party coalition government since 1 June 2018. He was a compromise candidate between the two governing parties, the League (Lega) and the Five Star Movement (MS5), and the country’s president, following three months of negotiations and failed attempts. Since parliamentary elections on 4 March 2018, the poles of power within the governing alliance have been reversed: Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s Lega has developed a 10% difference ahead of second-ranked M5S, compared to a 17.35% to 32.68% difference in favour of the latter in the elections. Rumours of snap polls abound. It remains to be seen. More than that, Salvini is about to deliver another political earthquake, this time in Brussels: he has announced the formation of a new coalition, that will transform to a new parliamentary group upon the convening of the new European Parliament, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations, together with French far-right Marine Le Pen’s National Assembly and other like-minded parties. This grouping has the potential to cause serious upset in the European capital by seeking a complete revision of the status quo, which could become problematic for the establishment if it will be back by numbers post-26 May.

Lithuania: Outgoing President Dalia Grybauskaitė is an independent and so will her successor, according to the polls for the upcoming scrutiny, to take place on 26 May. The country’s semi-presidential system safeguards stability, especially when it comes to European and international relations, despite the volatility of the minority government.

With eight countries hosting meaningful elections between today and November, two in coalition talks following elections earlier this year or, as it emanates from our analysis, thirteen overall in minority coalitions or eight in precarious, unstable conditions and another four tending towards instability (countries in which elections are scheduled to take place included), one could not exclude surprises or upsets following the Continent-wide European Parliament elections in May. Politicians and analysts alike should ignore the European Council calculus at their own peril. It is the politics of instability that Brussels will have to learn to manage, not simply the politics of populism or the extremes.

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