Months before the next European elections, the French political class on both right and left, is pondering whether it should lend support to the current EU Commissioner, Michel Barnier, in the race for the EU Commission presidency.
For the first time, the next president of the EU executive will be chosen from among the candidates proposed by the main political groups in the European Parliament, and most probably between the European People’s Party (EPP) on the right and the Socialist Party (PES), on the left.
The other political groups will also propose candidates but have little if any chance of winning. The European left has already chosen Alexis Tsipras from Greece and the Greens are expected to select MEPs José Bové and Rebecca Harms. The Liberal Democrats are still hesitating between Guy Verhofstadt and Olli Rehn.
Martin Schulz uniting the left
The European Socialists started the campaign early by proposing Martin Schulz as candidate, the current president of the European Parliament. His position allows him to create alliances that could be strategic after the elections.
“He’s a skilled politician, who can already count on the support of the Liberals from the centre and probably the Greens. And who knows maybe the United Left?” a source from the French socialist party has said.
The weariness of the left, even the far-left, towards an EU Commission that has been very liberal economically for the past eight years, could lead those groups to support Martin Schulz’s candidacy, which in turn could help the PES win against the EPP, even with fewer MEPs.
“We showed in practice that as leftist groups we were able to work together and make progress on specific issues like the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) or the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF),” a communist MEP stressed.
The centre-left could therefore win the EU Commission presidency even if the EPP wins the next elections in the EP, where it currently holds the most seats with 275 MEPs out of 754.
No consensus on Barnier
The French centre-right party, UMP, admits that this scenario could happen as “we are incapable of finding a candidate for Europe,” a French MP from the party commented.
Indeed, no right wing candidate is emerging so far. Michel Barnier, currently the Commissioner in charge of the internal market, has made it clear that he is available.
Barnier is appreciated in Brussels and well considered in Paris but much less among the UMP.
Jean-François Copé who leads the French centre-right party, does not prioritise EU affairs and would like to convince Bruno Le Maire, a competent and fervent pro-European politician, to run for the position. The right considers Barnier too much of a European federalist for the UMP, a Gaullist party where anti-EU sentiments sometimes prevail.
But Barnier is also the target of many other critics.
“In Brussels he is criticised for his level of English, not sufficient to be the EU’s number one,” an MEP commented. In fact Barnier speaks the language of Shakespeare sufficiently to use English terms in his French speeches.
On the far left, there is no support for Barnier's liberal views and criticism against the Commission is strong for not having helped many countries avoid the economic downturn. The Commissioner is also blamed for not having spearheaded a more social response to the crisis.
Another reason for the lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy is domestic, one socialist MEP warned. If Hollande was to support Barnier, who is originally from the UMP party, the collaboration of the two parties could be exploited by the extreme right, which regularly attacks traditional parties.
Asked by a French newspaper in mid-December about his ambitions, Barnier remained prudent: “I’m waiting to see if the EPP, where I am the vice-president, will need me. I cannot say now.”
The candidacy of the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean Paul Juncker could be game-changer. In an interview for the French paper Le Monde on 19 December, he said he was “ready if asked to”. He is a credible candidate even though Germany has not yet given him official support.
Juncker led his country for 18 years and spent five years at the head of the Eurogroup, which allowed him to build political alliances and European credibility. France is unenthusiastic however since it considers German influence over the renewal of the EU institutions to be overwhelming.
Angela Merkel wants to impose the Polish politician Radosław Sikorski in the post of Catherine Ashton as the High Representative for foreign affairs and for Lithuanian President and former EU Budget Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaitė to get a top job in the EU. Merkel wants a woman to get a high level post, and Luxemburger Viviane Reding, a popular politician in Europe, is also in the race.
“Angela Merkel can’t have the last word on the president of the Commission, too, let’s not exaggerate!” said one MEP.
France at the head of the Eurogroup?
The influence of Germany over the European institutions seems to be dominant however. As things stand , the president of the European Commission might be either a German – Martin Schulz whose party, SPD is part of the current German government, or a Luxembourger – Jean-Claude Juncker, who campaigned for Merkel’s CDU at the last German elections.
This situation could convince Paris to support Barnier’s candidacy more seriously.
If it does not, France will only be able to hope to get the presidency of the Eurogroup, the Finance Ministers’ group. The current president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem from the Netherlands, recently replaced Juncker after he stepped down mid-term. France has criticised Dijsselbloem for not having participated in some meetings and is pushing to give the job more gravitas by making it a full-time position, possibly aimed at Pierre Moscovici, a former MEP and current French Finance Minister.
Wolfgang Schäuble, the German minister for finance recently displayed his support for Moscovici in an interview. If Michel Barnier is not nominated by the EPP, the presidency of the Eurogroup looks like the only consolation prize for France.