Who will run Europe after the European Parliament elections?

In this year's European elections the main parties are presenting candidates to head the EU Commission, but coalition mechanisms will probably lead to “politics as usual”.

In this year’s elections to the European Parliament, the main European parties are for the first time telling the voters who their candidates to head the European Commission are. By doing this, they hope to mobilise voters, increase declining electoral participation, and prevent the main story of the elections from becoming the rise of Euroscepticism.

Source: Pollwatch

If this gambit is to work, the European Council must agree to play the game and to select the most voted-for candidate as the European Commission’s president, or else face a revolt from the European Parliament. Though individual council members have supported this move, the council itself has not publicly endorsed it, making clear that the nomination of the commission’s president remains its prerogative. But leaving aside for a moment the fact that it will take two (the council and the parliament) to do this tango, let us look at the polls and see who has the best chance of winning the election and thus most likely winning the council’s nomination.

According to the latest projections the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, is set to get 212 seats, followed by the Socialists and Democrats’ candidate, Martin Schulz, with 209

According to the latest projections (see figure above, data from PollWatch.eu), the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, is set to get 212 seats, followed by the Socialists and Democrats’ candidate, Martin Schulz, with 209. The liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, is projected to obtain 63 seats, and the United Left (GUE/NGL) candidate, Alexis Tsipras, should get 52 seats. The Greens’ two candidates, José Bové and Ska Keller, would get 38 seats. Neither the conservatives of the European Conservative and Reformist group (ECR) nor the far-right Europhobes associated with the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group have bought into this game and therefore neither group has posted a candidate.

Even if the EPP won the elections, making Juncker the most voted-for candidate, he would not necessarily be elected the next president of the European Commission. This is not a presidential election within a majoritarian system; it is a parliamentary election, in which the winning candidate needs “half plus one” of the European Parliament’s seats to gain the presidency. So, apart from winning the council’s nomination, the candidate will still have to obtain an absolute majority in the European Parliament. With 751 MEPs in the parliament, this means that Juncker – or, for that matter, Schulz – would need to gain the votes of 376 MEPs. Thus, even if Juncker won the elections, he would still need 164 additional votes to obtain the majority and to become the next president of the commission.

Where could Juncker find these extra votes? His first option would be to talk to the liberals of ALDE. But even if Verhofstadt were to join forces with Juncker, it would yield only a meagre majority of 275 seats (212+63), a huge 101 seats short of an absolute majority. The remaining votes would be harder to obtain. To Juncker’s right, he would find the ECR conservatives, who might be willing to offer him their 43 seats. But he would have to stop there, because to the right of ECR, he would find only the hostile Europhobes of EFD and a selection of 95 equally Eurosceptic members from Non-Inscrits/Non-Attached parties, none of whom seem likely allies for Juncker. So even if Juncker could manage to bring David Cameron’s conservatives and the liberal-federalist Verhofstadt into a coalition, he would still gain only 318 votes (42 percent), 58 votes short of an absolute majority (see below for a table of possible coalitions).

Source: Own elaboration based on Pollwatch forecast

Suppose that, as could happen in parliamentary democracies, Juncker failed to be invested by the parliament, and the council then asked the second most voted-for candidate, Martin Schulz, to try to form a majority. His task would be no easier than Juncker’s, because his 209 seats are also a long way from providing him with an absolute majority. Should he try to create a coalition that included the ALDE liberals’ 63 seats and the Greens’ 38, he would have 310 seats, 66 short of the absolute majority. If he then tried to form a red-green-red coalition including the Greens and United Left, he would come up 77 votes short.

But either coalition would face serious problems. In a liberal/Green coalition, the two sides agree on the idea of “more Europe”, even along federalist lines, but they do not share similar ideas on economic policies and euro zone governance. The problems of the second potential coalition would be even more insurmountable. United Left’s Alexis Tsipras would have to support the Socialists, which he is not doing at home in Greece, and United Left has not supported the Socialists in the European Parliament throughout the euro zone crisis. The red-green-red coalition would also involve persuading Angela Merkel to give up the right of naming a commissioner from her party, just to end up with a German Socialist as president of the European Commission with the support of the rebellious Greeks of Alexis Tsipras.

After a bit of despair, Juncker and Schulz may examine the numbers and realise that the only winning coalition that could deliver a safe and ample majority would be the one that the two of them could make together

So, after a bit of despair, Juncker and Schulz may examine the numbers and realise that the only winning coalition that could deliver a safe and ample majority would be the one that the two of them could make together. A grand coalition made up of the Socialists and the EPP would add up to 421 seats (56 percent), well above the absolute majority threshold. They could then ask Guy Verhofstadt’s liberals to join – being in the middle in this potential configuration, it seems quite plausible that the liberals would not want to be in the opposition. This three-group coalition would have 484 seats (64 percent). This would seem to be a really safe and stable absolute majority, bullet-proofed from both Eurosceptics on the right and Greens and left-wing members on the left. It could then deliver on a large number of issues, most importantly euro zone governance.

This coalition is not only feasible, but already well tested: it is, in fact, the same coalition that has governed Europe for decades. The only problem would be that it would send a confusing message to the voters. Having told the voters that this time was different, and that they would be able to choose between real alternatives along the left-right divide, the European Parliament would instead return to the “politics as usual” of being run by mainstream pro-European parties.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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