Scenario: who could take over EU’s top posts in 2019?

2019 is surely going to bring a large shake-up to the EU system. Next year we will see the first EU elections without the British and an increasingly fragmented European Parliament, as new political movements like Macron’s En Marche and the Italian 5 Star Movement are set to pose a serious challenge to the traditional parties. As a result, the allocation of top EU posts will be a more complex operation than ever before.

It goes without saying that all political forces are preparing in advance for these events, and various alternatives have already been taken into consideration in Brussels and EU Capitals. So what will the final puzzle look like? Who can take over the Presidencies of the European Commission, Council, Parliament, ECB and the top Foreign Affairs position? Here’s a scenario we’ve put together on the basis of currently available insights and calculations.

Note: this is just the first in a series of updates and forecasts that we will provide in this critical period between now and the end of 2019. At the end of this report you are also invited, via a survey, to share your own views (or place your own bets) on who will become the President of each of the institutions. We will integrate the results of this survey into our next update. 


The starting point for solving this puzzle is the result of the EU elections that is set to take place next spring. As it stands, if nothing spectacular occurs between now and then, the EPP will win these elections by a landslide, taking advantage of the decline of their main competitor, the Socialists and Democrats, across the continent. Opinion polls among the electorates in the EU27 confirm this, and most of the EU experts seem to have acknowledged the high likelihood of an EPP victory, as shown in our recent survey.

Meanwhile, the S&D group is currently at a crossroads, as the political group is trying to find the right balance between the temptations of forming a more cohesive alliance with the other progressive forces (Greens and the far-left) and the need to cooperate with the other pro-EU moderate groups (ALDE and EPP). Rumors over a potential departure of the most centrist and/or most social-conservative factions are also being ventilated. Despite its uncertain direction, the S&D group is expected to remain cohesive.

Potential EPP candidate Barnier currently in pole position to replace Juncker

Even though the spitzenkandidaten process may be met with opposition from some EU quarters, the candidate proposed by the EPP will certainly get the biggest chance in this race. For this part, it is little secret that the current chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is in pole position. The name of another French, currently heading the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, is also rumored to be quoted high in Merkel’s preferences (although this option faces considerable opposition within the EPP party). The Finnish Alexander Stubb or Jyrki Katainen will probably try to use the home ground advantage (they will host the EPP congress in Helsinki) to get something out of it, but given the expected opposition of the Southern delegations it is currently hard to believe that they can get that far as to overtake Barnier’s bid for the Commission’s Presidency. Barnier, for his part, is yet to get the support of the German conservatives.

While likely to get the most seats by far, the EPP will also be far from gaining an absolute majority, so it will have to build coalitions to push its candidate through the European Parliament. Paradoxically, EPP’s main electoral competitor, the S&D, has also been its main ally in the EP (together with ALDE): our data shows that these groups have voted together in the EP 75% of times during this term, a figure that makes it look like a grand coalition, even though the EP insiders know that the coalitions have been built on a case by case basis and not as part of a joint program. Cooperation between the two groups has gone slightly down since the mid-term announcement by Pittella, but things have not changed that much as claimed (the EPP and S&D needed each other to build a stable majority). Together, the EPP and S&D now hold roughly 53% of the EP seats.

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Coalition building in Brussels will be more difficult after 2019

But all of this will change in 2019. It may very well be the case that the EPP and S&D will lose so much that even the EPP+S&D combination would not be enough to obtain 50%+1 of seats. Under these circumstances, an agreement between these two groups (as was in 2014 between Juncker and Schulz) will not be enough to arrange the distribution of the posts and, in general, to pass decisions. Here is where Macron’s Europe En Marche (working name) comes into play. The defeat Macron took in the EP vote on transnational lists must have made him realise how important it is to have a strong say in this institution, and the French President is looking forward towards building (or joining) a group that can play the king-maker role in the future EP. This is likely to generate a shake up on the center of the European political spectrum, given the mixed views of ALDE members over Macron’s rise: the right-wing of the group, e.g. German FDP and Dutch VVD, is growing uncomfortable with most of Macron’s ideas, and as shown in a previous study we conducted, there is a natural reason for this: the policy views of these national parties are quite far from those proposed by the French president. Possibly taking on board important (if not most) delegations currently in the ALDE group, such as Ciudadanos, as well as MEPs which would otherwise sit with the S&D or other groups, a potential Europe En Marche could end up being big enough to play this role of king maker (and possibly even bigger than the S&D group).

Consequently, Macron’s European movement would most likely have to be invited to share the most valued spoils, the top EU posts. Macron would probably find it difficult to oppose the opportunity of having a French, likely Barnier, at the helm of the Commission, as long as Europe En Marche is also given one of the other positions. This would make Barnier pass though the EP hurdle, but he would still have to pass that of the Council. Here, the EPP is also far from being able to impose its candidate to a majority of chief of states, and hence will have to get at least the support of Macron and the Social Democrats (some of the liberals, if not with Macron, would be harder to get on board). The S&D would of course demand in exchange a position for them. As it stands, we are more inclined to think that the easiest settlement would be for the Social Democrats to take (again) the top foreign affairs post, while Europe en Marche would secure the EP Presidency. This would leave the 4th position, the Council Presidency, to the EPP, as the biggest party. But who can end up in these posts? Let’s take them one at a time.

How the EPP could share the ‘cake’ with Macron and S&D in 2019

1- If Europe en Marche settles for (at least the initial 2.5 years of) EP Presidency, it would be hard to picture the acceptance of two French at the helm of both the Commission and the EP. Hence, EP Presidency would most likely go to one of the other largest delegations in this group, for example to Ciudadanos (a party which will substantially increase its number of seats in 2019), a move that would thus also address the demands of the Spaniards (which have been, and would otherwise continue to be, underrepresented in the EU’s top positions).

2 – The Social-Democrats are likely to lose votes in most countries, but they will try to keep their grip on (at least) the EU Foreign affairs top post. As a junior coalition partner in Berlin, SPD could have a shot at this position (SPD is likely to remain the largest party within S&D). The promotion of a German Social Democrat to the top Foreign Affairs position could also assuage the concerns about a potential German takeover of the Presidency of the ECB, which is also up for grabs in 2019. Still, given the controversial appointment of German Martin Selmayr as the new Secretary General of the Commission, there is little appetite for promoting other Germans to another top position within the European Commission (in particular if Selmayr stays on as the Secretary General of the Commission under the new EC President).  A Social Democratic candidate from one of the Nordic countries is also likely to be considered for the top foreign affairs post, depending on the outcome of the upcoming national elections in Sweden, Denmark and Finland (ie. whether the local Social Democratic parties will be part of the new governments or not).

3 -The EPP would hence claim their other chief favorite position, the Council’s Presidency. As we have seen above, in this scenario the CEE countries are still left to get anything and the atmosphere in the EPP is of such nature to make one think that this is the position most likely to go to this region. The relations between Poland and the rest of the EU countries are in a bad shape and this will most likely contribute to Poland losing influence in the next reshuffle. From among the other countries, there could be two main contenders whose names are being circulated: the Lithuanian and the Romanian Presidents, Grybauskaitė and Iohannis, respectively. Both of them are non-Visegrad and seen as relatively Germany-friendly (the Romanian one is even part of the German minority in this country), which would appease Berlin, while Paris should be happy with the EC Presidency. Grybauskaitė  has  the advantage of being one of the few “female cards” on the table and of having served for longer as a country leader (10 years). Iohannis, on the other hand, may benefit from a profile boost as Romania holds the EU Presidency in the first part of 2019, ie. during the key moments of the finalization of Brexit and the EU elections. EU Council’s Presidency is also pretty much the only position that could go to a non-Eurozone but (relatively) big in size country, as is the case of Poland now (Romania will be the 6th largest country in the EU27).

4 – Germany will of course target something big for itself, such as the top ECB chairman position, which it wants in order to give a different spin and speed to the ECB’s economic policy orientations, which especially German conservatives have been at odds with over the past years. The idea of a German in this position has been fiercely opposed by the Southerners, given the stark difference in their approaches to economic policies. However, the above-mentioned arrangements may soften the Southerners’ opposition, especially after the Portuguese Finance Minister was elected as the chair of the Eurogroup and the Spaniards have got the VP of ECB. Still, Germany is accused of being already too powerful at the European level, as the current Secretary Generals of the European Parliament and the European Commission are both German. After the recent election of Udo Bullmann as S&D chair, German MEPs also lead both main political groups in the Parliament! If Germany fails to get the ECB top post, then the Bank could be lead by someone from another Northern Eurozone country, most likely Dutch or Irish.

Italians might struggle to remain influential at the EU level

The recent disastrous electoral performance of the established Italian parties will further complicate Italy’s chances to maintain its current (quite high) level of influence at the EU level, as Italians have been able to secure at the same time the High Representative, the ECB Presidency, and the EP Presidency (where the two finalists were both Italians!). Whether Italians will get some key positions at the EU level in 2019 will also depend on composition of the next Italian government, but also on how the 5 Star Movement (now the largest Italian party by far) will move after the likely disappearance of its current political group (EFDD). Will the 5 Star join one of the moderate political forces in the European Parliament or remain on the fringes ?

This is just the first in a series of updates and forecasts that we will provide in this critical period between now and the end of 2019. We will release more analysis as more insights become available.

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