Wednesday 10 June 2009

The Battle for the Commission Presidency

It seems that there could be a contest for the office of President of the European Commission, whether the Swedes like it or not. It's not that Barroso is particularly loved by the Swedes or that he would be an asset to the EU as Commission President with a renewed mandate, but that Council wrangling could undermine the effectiveness of the Swedish European Council presidency and generally make life harder for everyone.

However, there's news that ALDE, the Greens and the PES are considering proposing the Liberal Guy Verhofstadt has stirred some debate on the EU Blogosphere (see Stephen Spillane, Julien Frisch and Jon Worth).

Does Verhofstadt have much chance? Stephen has pointed out that the Traffic Light Coalition of Socialists, Liberals and Greens only has 294 seats, which is well short of the majority required, 369. There's also the problem that the coalition would be hard to maintain - especially since in order for Verhofstadt to have any chance, the appointment of the Commission President needs to be delayed. The cohesiveness of each group is questionable: the PES have 41 votes whose national parties back Barroso, and the PES as a party has little power to wield over these MEPs. The Liberals may be split in opposing Barroso, and the temptation of Commission portfolios could outweigh the desire to have one of their own heading the Commission - a temptation that is likely to increase in force as time drags on and the weakness of the coalition becomes more apparent. The Greens are the most cohesive group here.

Attracting the support of the Left (seats: 32) would bring the coalition to 326 - still short. The Left would be a fickle friend, however, as if they do support Verhofstadt, it will be in the sense of voting for the "lesser of two evils". The Eurosceptic strains among the GUE-NGL make Verhofstadt an unattractive candidate in a sense, and the Left may not be united in any pro-Verhofstadt coalition.

The No Group MEPs are unlikely to support a Commission President with such open federalist opinions - indeed the presence of such a candidate could move them into the pro-Barroso coalition.

It will be harder to justify the delay with the right scoring a convincing victory in the EP, and Jon Worth is right to point out that a clear result should mean that there's a clear winner in Presidency terms. Verhofstadt also needs the support of the Council. Barroso has been campaigning for re-election for a while now (a campaign which undermined the relevance of the European Parliament), and Verhofstadt hasn't been campaigning (openly, at any rate) for Council support.

The Pro-Barroso coalition, if you count the EPP, UEN and future EC MEPs together, equals 333 seats, also short of the 369 mark, but bigger than the anti-Barroso coalition. However, if you add in the possible-PES-rebel-MEPs, you get 374.

And that's not counting how the InDem and other No Group votes could fall.

This opens up a few political calculations. Should the Liberals risk an alliance with a disparate coalition that could collapse? It would be risking Commission influence to bag the top job, but is its own membership - and that of the PES's - cohesive enough not to split and betray the party leadership's plans? Should they align with the PES to increase the value of their votes, then switch to the Barroso side to gain more influence? How will this political gambling affect their position in the political playing field for the next 5 years?

Similar calculations apply to the PES too - is it better to buy influence at Commission level or risk damaging relations with the biggest group and other group relations for a bigger payoff? The next five years will be difficult for the PES - could a failure now make it worse?

A factor I've left out until now is Barroso himself (well, he's left himself and the Commission out of important decisions before, so it's not that big of an oversight). His frankly insane and PR-insensitive comments that:

"...I am against partisan political confrontation in Europe. If we are a supra-national reality, we need to be supra-partisan politicians."

...and refusal to set out a term timetable for the EP he wants to elect him:

"I am against political parties’ artificial dramatisation...We must talk about Europe positively, because what most encourages eurosceptics in times of crisis is the pessimism of pro-Europeans." just counter-productive. He's against open political contests? Hello - did you want a proper EP election or not?! You can't have politics or political choice without a political contest. To elect him without a contest - even at this late stage - would be damaging to the EP groups and to the EP, since it denies their true relevance and potential. And who will vote next time?

The refusal to submit a programme/timetable for government is a similarly callous disregard for the European Parliament. His ineptitude may yet turn EP allies against him.

Still, I predict that Barroso will secure a second term. If not him, it will be a compromise candidate and not Verhofstadt. Whoever it is, there needs to be a passionate and open debate and contest in the European Parliament. It is unlikely and hard to achieve given the coalitions involved - but if the EP can't attract interest now, when appointing the next executive, then when can it?


  1. If Barroso is against party politics, he could have stopped the EPP from endorsing him.

    His comments are inane and highly disingenuous - real low water marks with regard to intellectual honesty.

    The new political groups in the European Parliament haven't been formed yet, but outside the four mainstream parties there is a preponderance of nationalists (and worse).

    This will be the first test of if the Tories (European Conservatives) are going to influence the European Parliament.

    In the end, I don't think it matters much how they vote, but if they manage to extract a price for supporting Barroso.

    My guess is that the mainstream groups (EPP, PES, ALDE, Greens) are not going to become indebted to the ECs.

    A simple majority will suffice, so with a suitable number of abstentions Barroso's second mandate could be in the bag, even if the EPP and PES fail to agree.

  2. My guess is that, with the parliamentary spread we now have, there will be stalemate - and, as the Nice Treaty allows (we are playing under Nice rules still), the Council will decide whatever the Council wants.

    My current concern is not about the Commission President, though. I am frustrated by the fact that all the debate over the proposed new financial regulations is being carried out within the Council only. Why no parliamentary debate?

  3. @ Grahnlaw

    "In the end, I don't think it matters much how they vote, but if they manage to extract a price for supporting Barroso."

    I agree. There is an outside chance that a different EPPP candidate could be appointed, in the case that Barroso upsets too many EPP MEPs. The PES could be tempted to play more of an opposition role here, but the best way of winning influence is to extract the maximum in concessions, and then play the opposition on a case-by-case issue basis.

    @ french derek

    I'm afraid I haven't been following whatever debate there has been in the EP about this. If there's been no debate, it might have been because the EP was wrapping up for the elections - it did rush through the last few bits of legislation. Still, the lack of a debate about it on the campaign trail about the issue was disappointing (at least in the UK & Ireland - was it different in France?).

    Hopefully the EP will get its teeth into it once it settles in.