2019 is an exciting year for the European Union. In May, more than half of voters in the EU casted their ballots for the new European Parliament (up from 43% in 2014). In November, the successor to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will start, with a fresh team. The European Council also gets a new President. And then there’s Brexit, now scheduled for October 31.
Here’s an overview of the main changes that we can expect for the EU in 2019-2024, the coming mandate for both the EP and the Commission. Let’s start with the European Parliament.
European Parliament: more diverse
Though the EP elections have been dubbed as ‘historic’ and ‘crucial’, it remains to be seen whether the shift in the power balance within the EP will actually translate into different policies. True, the normally dominant blocks of christian-democrats (EPP) and socialists (S&D) have lost their majority. The Liberals will now be necessary to form some kind of coalition – even though this Parliament is not really a Parliament (according to the German High Court) as it does not appoint a government nor does it represent European citizens on transnational lists (though it must be stated that Volt, a pan-European party, got one MEP elected).
But let’s say there will be such a broad coalition, that doesn’t mean that things will change that much. The Greens, if they join the coalition, for sure will want more climate action – but is that feasible giving the already high targets of the EU for 2030 and beyond? And given that the EU is already seen as a climate leader in the world? The Liberals + Renaissance (the list of French President Macron) have a long wish-list to reform and strengthen Europe, for instance on asylum and migration policies and on the Digital Single Market. Many of these points will be supported (albeit sometimes lukewarmly) by other political groups in the EP.
The Liberals (formerly known as ALDE, we are still waiting for a new name) are pivoting themselves against the ‘illiberal’ forces that have taken a fair chunk of the EP: nationalist, eurosceptic and anti-EU parties from all over the EU. But the fear of many that they would become a distorting power in the EP, has not materialised. As Politico stated: the populist tide rises but fails to flood the EU. Some parties have done quite well, notably Salvini’s Lega Nord in Italy with 33% of the vote and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France with 23% coming in first place.
But in other countries such as Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, far-right and nationalist parties only got a thin slice of electoral support – not the third of the cake as was project in some polls. One important thing to note is that these parties do not necessarily work together well and will join the same group, which means that their influence will likely be lower than if you just add up the numbers.
We should actually be content with the fragmentation of the European Parliament. It used to be a pro-integration machine with even strong federalist forces. Such single-mindedness has now been put aside for a more realistic and diverse representation of the European electorate. This is healthy and good for European democracy. It will also liven up the debate in the EP.
The new Commission: working on an EU that protects
How will this change of hearts of voters actually translate into a new European Commission? Right now, EU observers are frantically looking for indications who will be the next Commission President – the starting point to compose the executive body of the EU for the next five years. As readers may well know, the EP has been pushing its own Spitzenkandidaten, primary candidates such as EPP’s Manfred Weber and S&D’s Frans Timmermans. But given the shrunken size of these two (former) reins of power, as well as the formidable opposition to the Spitzenkandidaten system by influential EU leaders such as President Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, it is unlikely that either Weber or Timmermans will in the end be nominated by the European Council.
The EU Member States are expected to take a decision on 21 June on the candidate for the Commission President. It is very hard to give a good prediction of who will come up first. Other candidates, if informal, are the French Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (I would give him the best odds as he is also from the EPP and respected across the board) and the Danish Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.
This is a real tombola. In the next weeks and months, EU leaders also need to decide on a new Council President (now Donald Tusk) and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs. The EP has to elect a new President as well. All these posts are connected and a careful balance of power, aka horse trading, is crucial. EPP, S&D and Liberals will all want ‘one of them’ on a crucial place. For instance, if Weber does get elected, that means that not another German (for instance Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel) can get the position as Council President. Then a social-democrat or a liberal will need to be found, possibly even from another region in the EU.
When in the summer all the names will have been checked and approved, the soon-to-be-President can start forming his own Commission which will then be ‘grilled’ by the European Parliament in September-October. Member States will need to come up with candidates; timing is of the essence. Finland has done so already by the way, by proposing Jutta Urpilainen. Bulgaria will most likely put forward again the current Commissioner for Digital Economy, Mariya Gabriel.
More importantly than all the names are actually the priorities of the new Commission. It is expected that current policies to further integrate Europe’s (digital) markets will be continued and that reform of the eurozone governance will also remain high on the agenda. The Commission will also undoubtedly keep pushing for climate action.
A new approach however, which has come up with the rise of Emmanuel Macron, is the idea of a Europe that protects. So not only doing nice things for European citizens in the form of abolishment of mobile phone roaming surcharges and other ‘output deliverables’ that are supposed to increase legitimacy for European integration.
A Europe that protects will for instance, have a stronger European foreign policy which is very much needed given the adversity of Russia, the departure of the British, the loss of transatlantic relations (I expect Donald Trump to be reelected in 2020) and the further (aggressive) rise of China. Another hot topic of course is immigration which will need much stronger and coordinated policies, for instance through the reform of the Schengen and Dublin systems. Then there is the wish of the social-democrats to widen the social protection policies of the EU, which is controversial, because anything related to the welfare state such as unemployment benefits and pension rights, is a competence which lies entirely with the EU Member States. All this will be laid down in a working programme for the Commission which will change from year to year.
Finally, money. The EU will decide on its own budget for the period 2021-2027 before the end of the year, taking into account the new balance of power of the European Parliament. This ‘Multiannual Financial Framework’ will be no more than 1,3% of Europe’s gross national income but still be considerable in real numbers: up to 1325 billion euros – most of this money going to the EU’s agriculture policies and ‘cohesion funds’ for poorer areas in the bloc. One new element is that this EU budget can be revised mid-term, in 2023.
So right now in Brussels, it’s a bit of a lull for observers and lobbyists, a transition year in which new priorities will be set. But it’s now already clear that European integration will move on. And that there’s not a sufficient counterforce in the EP or within Member States to halt – or even reverse – the train. The next years we can expect more Europe – not less.