The recent G-20 meeting proved yet again that there is no personal (or political) chemistry between the current U.S. president and his European allies. Before coming to Japan last week, President Donald Trump didn’t miss an opportunity to assail Europeans, particularly Germany, and it was obvious that success in trade negotiations with China or nuclear talks with North Korea were of higher importance than meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron.
But this time, the European Union leaders, too, seemed to have been less interested in conferring with Trump. Instead, they arrived in Osaka with suitcases full of domestic worries and divisions over who should run the EU for the next five years.
With the new EU Parliament that was elected in May conducting its inaugural session today, leaders of its member states have scrambled – and failed — to agree on who will fill the most prestigious and influential EU positions. These officials, such as outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, represent more than the face of the EU in relations with the United States and others. Though member states and their leaders are the big fish in the bloc, the top officials are responsible for critical negotiations. The commission president or the president of the European Council, for example, would negotiate trade deals with the U.S. president or Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The commission president also is responsible for proposing EU laws and supervising the implementation of agreed policies.
In addition to the president of the European Commission, who heads the EU’s executive branch, the positions in play are the president of the parliament, which as the legislative body also technically elects candidates for the top positions but in practice mainly confirms the choices negotiated by leaders of member states; the president of the European Council, which is made up of leaders of member states and sets the bloc’s political direction; the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), which oversees monetary and fiscal policy for the 19 nations that are members of the Eurozone; and the European foreign policy chief, formally called the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
In the hours ahead of today’s inaugural session of parliament, EU leaders had yet to decide who would win the top jobs, as they seek informal agreement on how to balance the parliamentary election results with the political influence of individual EU leaders and the countries they represent, as well as with gender and geographic considerations.
The Post-EU Election Muddle
The recent EU parliamentary elections didn’t provide clear guidance, in any case. If the results didn’t make things worse, they didn’t make them better either. On the plus side, predictions of a right-wing, Eurosceptic takeover of the European Parliament were greatly exaggerated. But the results confirmed the deep divisions in the EU over its future and over the role of member states, as it looks toward potential reforms of its structure and institutions.
The political old guard that has commanded the EU Parliament for decades are embodied in the two large but shrinking voting blocs: the center-right European People’s Parties (EPP), which includes Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D), made up largely of Social Democratic parties across Europe. But those traditional behemoths no longer fully control decision-making.
Instead, populists and Eurosceptics have at least managed to decrease or challenge the power of traditional European leaders. Merkel earlier this year resigned as leader of her CDU party in Germany, and her influence in German politics is dwindling. Thanks to Macron, the European Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) made advances in the European Parliament by becoming the third-strongest political group (108 seats out of 751), and has since changed its name to Renew Europe.
But Macron has no reason to be complacent, as his centrist Republic on the Move party lost narrowly in France’s elections for the European Parliament to Marine Le Pen, the leader of the populist, far-right and, by many estimations, anti-Semitic party, National Rally. Le Pen came in first in France, with 23.3 percent of the vote, ahead of Macron, who won 22.4 percent.
The next cadre of top EU officials also will be handling the next stage of any negotiations with the U.K. over Brexit. Still searching for a way out of the EU, the U.K. is embroiled in its own domestic political succession. Boris Johnson is leading the race to become the next British prime minister, after Theresa May, fresh from another loss in her efforts to win parliamentary approval of a Brexit plan, announced in early June that she would step down as Conservative Party leader once a replacement is named. If Johnson takes the helm, he likely will negotiate his country’s exit from the EU based on his firm belief that Britain is better off leaving without a deal than what he considers humiliating itself with another postponement.
In the talks over the top EU slots, the appointment of the EC president seemed to be the most contentious issue. The naming of Juncker in 2014 was seen as a victory for Germany and Merkel, who had promoted his candidacy. This time, Manfred Weber had long been her pick as Juncker’s successor. However, as the EPP bloc lost ground in the EU elections and Macron publicly challenged Weber’s nomination, his odds have been shrinking. As of the talks at the G-20, the leaders seem to have agreed that Weber would not get the nod.
Running against the clock, the EU called an extraordinary summit on June 30 in another effort to make a final decision. Arriving in Brussels from Japan, Merkel and Macron sounded optimistic and reportedly had made a tacit deal. But center-left leaders from EU member states pressed for their candidate, Dutch politician Frans Timmermans, and Merkel purportedly had approved, only to confront opposition from the biggest political group, the EPP. The group opposing Timmermans included the leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, and Ireland, a broader set of opponents than just conservatives and populists. They reportedly were furious at Merkel for proposing to give away the most prestigious position to their S&D rivals. Despite the disagreements, Timmermans still was seen as the top candidate for EC President by the end of the day.
In the meantime, World Bank Chief Executive Kristalina Georgieva, the nominee of the EPP bloc, appears to be the top candidate to succeed former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.
Possibly Making History with `Google’s Nemesis?’
As the candidates of the traditional center-left and center-right parties face obstacles, the chances increased for a liberal candidate to be elected as EC president. If this happens, it would make history for the EU for two reasons. One of the contenders, Margrethe Vestager, is a Danish politician who is the current European Commissioner for Competition and would be the first woman to occupy the presidency.
By electing her, the EU Parliament also would break the existing duality of the European political system in which the the EPP and the S&D dominate. As the nomination of Junker five years ago re-confirmed Merkel’s authority in the EU, so would Vestager’s choice prove Macron’s growing significance within the club.
The selection of Vestager undoubtedly would affect the EU’s relations with the United States. Dubbed in multiple headlines as “Google’s nemesis” and recognized for her tough stance on corporations like Apple and Amazon during her term as Commissioner for Competition, she has drawn Trump’s scorn. In a meeting with Juncker last year, Trump reportedly criticized Vestager as “your tax lady” who “really hates the U.S.” In a recent reference to anti-trust law during an on-air phone call to Fox Business, Trump exclaimed, “She hates the United States perhaps worse than any person I’ve ever met.”
Negotiations Grind to a Halt
“Consultations continue,” is the notorious EU euphemism to describe the bloc’s frequent political wrangles and disagreements among its members. Consultations most certainly weren’t continuing by the end of yesterday – after an 18-hour European Council summit to try to break the deadlock, Timmermans’s candidacy, too, seems to have failed in the face of the EPP opposition.
The deep divisions seem to reflect the splintered results of the May parliamentary elections themselves. Leaders are due to reconvene today to try again to reach agreement.
Whoever will be elected to run the EC or become the president of the European Council, the euro-Atlantic partnership will be one of the top priorities. Relations have been extremely challenging, and the two sides appear confused and dysfunctional. For many in Europe, this is more serious than the 2003 disagreement over the Iraq War.
Differences are obvious on major foreign policy issues, including Iran, China, Russia, and, not to be forgotten, climate change. The United States and the EU were on the brink of a trade war last year, but avoided a full-scale faceoff in August. Each side is prone to see the causes of its problems on the another side of the Atlantic.
But this isn’t the first rift and should rather be seen as another hurdle that longstanding partners can overcome together, as they’ve done many times over the last several decades.
No doubt, Europe must be more responsible for its security and more able to grapple with its own challenges, such as Brexit, the migration crisis, and the rise of the far-right and populism. Brussels must learn how to handle security risks in its neighborhood like the war in Ukraine.
What makes this crisis different is that the core values, principles, and political philosophy underpinning this partnership are being questioned from within, even as they come under pressure from the purveyors of identity politics on both sides of the Atlantic. That is why preserving the Euro-Atlantic bond and enhancing cooperation across the ocean is as important today as ever. The EU can advance that cause by first – and strongly — resolving its own internal crises of leadership.