Europe’s power game has begun, and the first victim is the Stirwen restaurant.
The genteel Brussels eatery was booked on Monday night for a gathering of the European Parliament’s political clans, as they attempted to forge a workable coalition out of Sunday’s election results.
Back in 2014, the Stirwen hosted the first dinner between Jean-Claude Juncker and the political group leaders who elected him Commission president. Manfred Weber, his successor as the centre-right Spitzenkandidat, hoped he could pull off a repeat.
But in a sign of how touchy and drawn out talks may become, the Liberal, Socialist and Green leaders cancelled after Mr Weber made his “invitation” public. “We only come as equals,” declared one senior party adviser.
The spat is a classic example of a process that veteran diplomats say Brussels does best: “measure power by the nanogram” and divvy it up among parts of the European project.
Sunday’s elections provide the political raw material for a new balance of power in Europe, from its top posts to policy programme. But it may take some time to fashion.
No way but four way
European voters left the Parliament in a coalition quagmire. An assembly that worked for four decades through a political duopoly — the centre-right European People’s Party and centre-left Socialists — is having to broaden its power base to include Liberals and Greens.
The magic coalition number is the 376 votes required to elect a Commission president. That is too high for a progressive alliance excluding Mr Weber’s EPP. Any configuration excluding the 109 Liberal MEPs is also mathematically all but impossible.
This leaves two main options. One is to bring together the three biggest parties, excluding the Greens. But the majority is implausibly small, especially once troublemakers (such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban) and 27 British MEPs are taken into account. No Commission president wants to be elected on a margin of UK votes.
One senior Parliament figure said a four-way coalition “is the only way”. With the Greens, this has the depth for a stable majority. But it also gives huge leverage to once marginal parties to decide nominees for jobs and shape a common policy programme.
Whither Weber and the Spitz
The dinner debacle shows just how tricky it might be for Mr Weber to keep alive the Spitzenkandidaten system, muster a majority and avoid it looking like a stitch up to put the third successive centre-right president in the Commission’s Berlaymont building.
Mr Weber has the advantage of a higher turnout in elections, and a 35 seat lead over the Socialists. But unlike 2014, when the parliament rallied behind Mr Juncker to enhance the institution’s sway over Brussels policymaking, MEPs are split over the lead candidate system and the merits of Mr Weber.
“The institutional balance between the Parliament and Council has been reversed,” said Sophia Russack, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “In 2014 the Parliament was very clear and backed Juncker as an institution rather than out of party politics. Now they are fragmented and need time.”
Even stalwart Spitzenkandidat supporters admit the system is on the rocks. Martin Selmayr, the Commission secretary-general who masterminded Mr Juncker’s rise to power, said winning candidates can only expect an automatic right to the Commission without a stable parliament majority agreed.
Meanwhile, Mr Weber’s adversaries are lining up, particularly in the Liberal bloc. Pascal Canfin, one of the top two campaigners for Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list, on Monday said the German was “totally disqualified today,” naming instead Michel Barnier, Brussels chief Brexit negotiator, or another “French candidate.”
The summit manoeuvres
When the European Council gathers on Tuesday night, the experience of being outflanked in 2014 will loom large. One ambassador of a major member state said EU leaders were still “traumatised” over losing the initiative to Parliament over Mr Juncker: “The wounds are still fresh. It won’t happen again.”
But to restore the European Council’s pre-eminent position in deciding jobs may be hard. Emmanuel Macron is against the system, and could use the summit to steal a march on the Parliament before it agrees on a candidate. But diplomats say the French president may see advantages in taking his time, and pushing others to stop Mr Weber.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is also seeking to marshal opponents into a blocking minority. But he faces reluctance from Angela Merkel among others. The German chancellor last week went further than before in saying her “goal” was to make Mr Weber Commission president.
At the summit she is looking for a short, uneventful discussion, rather than a moment to strike back over the Spitzenkandidat. “There is a bit of tension,” said one EU ambassador preparing the summit. “Merkel does not want anything to come out of Tuesday’s dinner.”
Merkel-Macron prisoners’ dilemma
The French and German leaders are in a bind. They have opposing interests in the top jobs race, more so than in past contests. French and German nationals are in contention for the same posts at the European Commission and European Central Bank. Their president and chancellor are also at the helm of competing political families, with Mr Macron’s Liberals keen to knock Ms Merkel’s EPP off its perch in Brussels.
A clash is possible. But if Mr Macron and Ms Merkel push their respective interests, both sides could suffer. A Franco-German clash could leave the field open to others, while diluting the influence of Paris and Berlin on EU institutions.
“Macron and Merkel have to decide whether to come together. If they do not they will pay a price,” said one senior EU official who was central to developing the Spitzenkandidat idea. “To deny the other side is to deny yourself.”
Populists at bay
The gains made by far-right and anti-EU groups in Sunday’s elections will only translate into influence if they can consolidate inside a bigger force in the parliament. Even then it may be modest at best.
As it stands, the Eurosceptics are divided across three alliances — represented by France’s Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini of Italy and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.
The choice facing them is whether to take the path of maximum disruption (the Le Pen way) or stay within the fold of mainstream EU politics to increase their sway over EU policy (the Polish route).
But mainstream parties have excluded working with parties to the right of the EPP. It means even a large Eurosceptic group — including Mr Orban and other EPP defections — may only be able to wield indirect power by making it even harder to build a majority for a Commission president.