Sunday, June 16, 2024

Euro-sceptic gains in EU election complicate von der Leyen’s commission bid

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BRUSSELS – The rise of euro-sceptic nationalist parties in the European election is likely to complicate Dr Ursula von der Leyen’s bid to get a second term as president of the powerful European Commission, though she remains the front runner for the job.

To secure another five years as boss of the European Union’s executive arm, Dr von der Leyen needs a “qualified majority” of the 27 EU leaders and also a majority in the 720-seat European Parliament.

In 2019, she barely scraped through that vote with just nine votes more than needed, despite her centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) being the biggest grouping in the legislature. She also had the backing of the second-biggest grouping, the socialists; and the third-biggest, the liberals.

The EPP remains the biggest group in Parliament and first projections of seats showed that if the centre-left, liberals and Greens all vote for Dr von der Leyen, she would have more than the required majority of 361 votes.

But nationalist and euro-sceptic political groups as well as the far-right German AfD party would jointly gain 22 deputies to a total of 149. Their gains could be much bigger, depending on how many of the 102 now non-affiliated members decide to formally join one of the euro-sceptic parliamentary groups.

This would leave Dr von der Leyen much less room to manoeuvre, especially since it is not clear how many deputies from her potential coalition might not vote for her even if their party leaders give their support.

In 2019, some 100 Members of the European Parliament from the EPP, centre-left and liberals’ coalition did not vote for her, but she got the votes she needed from right-wing Polish deputies. They are unlikely to support her now, especially since she helped push through the EU’s Green Deal and was tough on rule-of-law issues.

To assure support in Parliament, she has been signalling readiness to cooperate on important issues with the European Conservatives and Reformists Party (ECR), which groups euro-sceptic parties like Brothers of Italy, Spain’s Vox and Poland’s Law and Justice.

Diplomats say this could shift EU policymaking more to the right at the proposal stage, since the draft legislation is prepared by the commission.

But flirting with the ECR puts Dr von der Leyen at risk of losing her usual allies because the socialists, liberals and Greens have all said they would not support her if she cooperates with the right.

EU leaders

Things may be a bit easier with European leaders, who have to nominate her for the job before Parliament votes. Though only 13 of the 27 leaders belong to the EPP, they will take into consideration the fact it remains the biggest group.

Dr von der Leyen is also seen by most as having done a good job over the last five years, especially with delivering vaccines for the EU early in the Covid-19 pandemic and with uniting the EU in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The qualified majority she needs means 15 of the 27 EU leaders, from countries that together represent 65 per cent of the EU’s population, must back her nomination.

The 13 EPP-ruled countries, of which Poland is the biggest, together represent only 26 per cent of the EU’s citizens.

In practice, this means Dr von der Leyen also needs the vote of the liberal French President Emmanuel Macron as well as the socialist German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, though not necessarily the nationalist Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni.

But French support is not guaranteed. Mr Macron has been touting former Italian prime minister and European Central Bank head Mario Draghi as a person who should “play a role” in the several top EU jobs that have to be decided in 2024.

EU diplomats point out that Mr Draghi is not linked to any party and therefore lacks a broader political base. Each of the EU’s big political families – the EPP, the socialists, liberals, Greens, the left, the right-wing ECR and far-right Identity and Democracy, all have their candidates for the top commission job.

Adding to the complexity, the top commission job will be part of a package of senior EU posts decided in 2024, with political groups trading their support not only for policy promises but also key positions for their representatives. REUTERS

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