The big news this morning from Europe is that after some marathon negotiating sessions, the heads of government of the European Union have agreed on their nominees for the top positions in the EU for the next five years.
The process is an odd one; it’s rather as if, following an Australian election, the state premiers were to get together with the outgoing prime minister and governor-general to choose the new government, with only minimal reference to the balance of power in parliament and what the new MPs actually want.
German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen is the choice for EU prime minister (“president of the commission”), the first woman to hold the position. Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell is slated to be EU foreign minister (“high representative”), with Christine Lagarde, currently in charge of the IMF, to head the European Central Bank.
Belgian prime minister Charles Michel is to be the new EU head of state (“president of the European Council”), and Italy’s David-Maria Sassoli is to be the new parliamentary speaker (“president”) – the heads of government do not officially nominate the latter position, but it is clearly part of their calculations.
Politically, the nominees represent a cross-section. Von der Leyen is from the centre-right, but as a key ally of Angela Merkel she is clearly from the centrist end of that group, as is Lagarde. Borrell and Sassoli are both from the centre-left, while Michel is a liberal.
The new prime minister and her government (but not the head of state) need to be approved by the European parliament, which met for the first time overnight following elections in May. I had a bit to say about the party situation then, but now that the MPs have sorted themselves into groups we can be more definitive.
There are seven party groups in the new parliament, one fewer than in the last. Some consolidation has taken place on the far right, with a single group, “Identity and Democracy”, replacing Europe of Freedom & Direct Democracy and Europe of Nations & Freedom. There are also 53 non-aligned MPs from across the spectrum, but most of them come from just two parties: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Italy’s populist 5-Star Movement.
So, how did the centre-left do? Is this part of their continuing story of decline? Or do they have some basis for resisting yet another centre-right candidate (the third in succession) for the prime ministership?
The three left-of-centre groups have 269 of the 751 seats in parliament between them: 154 for the centre-left (down 37), 74 Greens (up 24) and 41 far left (down 11). Adding in the liberal/centrist group, now called “Renew Europe”, with its 108 seats (up 41) brings the total to 377 – a bare majority.*
That’s not the first time that left and centre have had a majority, but it hasn’t happened since the 2004-09 parliament. More significant is the fact that nobody much cared about that in previous parliaments, because centre-left and centre-right always had a majority between them, and usually a large one, and they controlled proceedings in an informal coalition.
That has now changed. It wasn’t just the centre-left that did badly this time; the centre-right was also down, from 221 seats to 182. Joint control by the two major groups is dead.
And if broader coalitions need to be built, the centre-left is better placed because it can work with the other forces on the left – the Greens and the far left – but no-one can work with the far right or with Farage’s party. And even if the centre-right teams up with both the centrists and the moderate Eurosceptic group ECR (which won 62 seats, down eight) it would still be short of a majority.
That’s why, in the last few days of negotiations, the centre-right had to compromise and walk back from its preferred candidate for prime minister, Manfred Weber. And although parliament could throw out von der Leyen’s nomination and send the heads of government back to the drawing board, it’s more likely that the centre-left and liberals will accept the deal.
In one sense that seems like a step back from responsible government, since von der Leyen hadn’t been put forward as a candidate prior to the election. But it shows that Europe’s leaders are going to have to pay more attention to parliamentary numbers than they have in the past.
And in the long run that should be good for the centre-left – and for democracy.
* The majority is slightly better than it looks because a few of the non-aligned MPs would probably vote with the centre or left, but it’s still pretty thin – unless they can win over the 5-Stars, who have in the past flirted with joining either the centrists or the Greens.