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July 04, 2019

What will the European Parliament do?

We are doing the math on Ursula von der Leyen’s nomination, and conclude that the outcome could be extremely tight. The mood in Germany is turning against her. This morning, more German newspapers were calling on the European Parliament to reject her. It is not easy for outsiders to grasp why Germany of all countries is so hostile to a German nominee, especially somebody with strong pro-European views.

The reason is that the whole political system in Germany has bought into the spitzenkandidaten idea. As happens so often, German political commentators extrapolate to the rest of the EU from their own rather special beliefs about how democracy should work. It was one of Angela Merkel’s serial misjudgements over the last few days that, having lost the spitzenkandidaten debate, she could calm down public opinion with a German nominee.  

Will the European Parliament heed the call of the German kommentariat? We are not sure. In the past, insurrection often failed because of behind-the-scenes arm twisting. We recall how Spanish and Portuguese Socialist MEPs broke ranks and supported the nomination of Jose Manuel Barroso as Commission president twice in the last decade, thus handing him the necessary votes. This might happen again. Josep Borrell, a Spanish socialist, is the nominee for the job of High Representative for foreign policy. And Pedro Sánchez cannot credibly play his new EU leadership role if his own MEPs undermine him. The centre-left in the European Parliament is not happy about the way the European Council selected von der Leyen. But not all of them have the same priorities.

Von der Leyen might also be supported by Poland’s Law and Justice Party - which is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists group. And who knows what the Five Star MEPs will do. Giuseppe Conte was happy with the compromise - and the parliament just voted for an Italian to be their president.

The Greens will probably not support von der Leyen - there is no benefit for them in supporting an administration that might well have neither jobs nor sufficient programmatic commitments for them. But even for the Greens the situation is not clear cut.

The biggest problem for von der Leyen is possibly her own team - and her own country. It is conceivable that angry EPP MEPs might end up not supporting her. The vote will be secret. Manfred Weber was demonstratively polite when he escorted her around the European Parliament building in Strasbourg yesterday. But what voting button will he end up pressing? David Sassoli, an Italian centre-left MEP, won his election to the presidency of the European Parliament with far fewer votes than the nominal coalition of EPP, S&D and the liberal Reform Europe group would suggest. Whose votes were missing?

Perhaps more than ever before, yes and no votes will cut across all groups, which is what makes the process so unpredictable. The German SPD seems to be firm in its opposition now, but they have often eaten their words in the past. We all remember Martin Schulz’ categorical rejection not to enter into another German grand coalition. The SPD could have nipped the von der Leyen candidacy in the bud if they had had the courage to walk out of the grand coalition. The priority for Europe’s declining Social Democrats has been to hang on to as many jobs as possible. If you are hoping for an insurrection, you might want to look elsewhere. 

So here is the math: von der Leyen will need at least 376 votes for an absolute majority. Together EPP, S&D and RE have 444, which should be enough in theory. But that margin may not be big enough to secure support on purely partisan lines. She has a chance. But events could intrude, as the saying goes.

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