Leaders of Europe’s centre-right political parties are struggling to keep open their options when it comes to choosing the next president of the European Commission and other senior office-holders in the European Union.
When Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, visits London today (27 February) for talks with David Cameron, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, she will be sounding him out about possible support for politicians on the centre-right.
She is being advised that MEPs from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) may need help from British Conservative MEPs and other members of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group if they are to see off centre-left candidates.
Both Merkel and Cameron are keen on preserving the powers of the 28 national leaders in the European Council to appoint the Commission president, rejecting the notion that they are bound to appoint the lead candidate from the political party with the largest number of MEPs. Opinion polls currently suggest that that party will be the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES), whose candidate will be Martin Schulz, the president of the Parliament.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union this week announced that, in the EPP’s internal contest for the Commission presidency nomination, it would support Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, ahead of his rivals for the nominations: Valdis Dombrovskis, who was prime minister of Latvia from 2009 until last November, and an MEP in 2004-09, and Michel Barnier, the European commissioner for the internal market, who is an ex-foreign minister of France. The EPP will make its choice next week (7 March) at a party congress in Dublin.
While Dombrovskis is closely associated with austerity politics, Juncker may be perceived as more acceptable to southern European parties, and, if a cross-party agreement is needed, might be more acceptable to the centre-left than Barnier.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe has chosen Guy Verhofstadt as its candidate for the Commission presidency.
Martin Callanan, the leader of the ECR MEPs, told European Voice: “We will see who the [European] Council proposes for the position, hear their agenda, and decide on them on the basis of their individual merits and whether they support our principles of a more flexible and open EU. But I cannot see how we could support Schulz, Verhofstadt or Juncker because none of them supports those principles.”
The EPP fears that if MEPs from the ECR group decide not to vote at all for a president of the European Commission, then the centre-left’s hand will be strengthened.
Whoever becomes Commission president will need the backing of the Parliament, which will vote – probably in July – on a nomination from the European Council.
Merkel wants to avoid any institutional crisis precipitated by MEPs blocking the Council’s choice. She was initially unconvinced that the EPP should have a candidate who would lead the election campaign, but her thinking was changed by the strong campaigning of Schulz, the PES candidate, who has been very present in German media in recent months. “Many underestimated Schulz and the dynamics that would be created by him being the top candidate [of the centre-left],” said an official. “Merkel woke up to this, and realised that she had to jump on the bandwagon.”