German coalition talks cast long shadow over EU elections

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German chancellor Angela Merkel said there was no “automatic link” between the party that wins next year's EU election and the next European Commission president, casting doubt over a pledge by the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) to "put a face" on the election.

"The Treaty clearly describes that [the results of the elections] are to be 'taken into account'," Angela Merkel told a press briefing after last week’s EU summit on Friday (25 October).

"The President of the Commission is elected by the European Parliament after proposal by the European Council. There’s no automatic linkage between number of votes and [top positions] to be filled – not to me," she said.

Merkel’s statement came as a reminder that EU heads of states in the European Council still call the shots on the designation of the next President of the European Commission, despite calls to "put a face" on the election.

>> Read: Barroso: I proposed putting a 'face' on EU elections

The Lisbon Treaty stipulates that the European Council of EU heads of states, "acting by a qualified majority, shall propose" a candidate for the Commission “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations”. The chosen candidate will then “be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members” (Article 17.7 Treaty on the European Union).

For EU federalists, such a procedure will spell the end of backroom deals among EU leaders that have prevailed in designating Commission presidents until now. Crucially, it is also expected to strengthen the democratic process by establishing a direct link between the election and the designation of the next chief of the EU executive.

Anticipating the change, the main European political families have launched internal primary processes to choose their candidate for the EU executive, pledging to politicise the electoral process by "putting a face" on the election.

But “there will be many considerations made, and many decisions made, after the EU elections,” the German chancellor said, expressing her reluctance to play ball.

EPP ambiguity

Merkel’s remarks followed a meeting of centre-right heads of states in the margins of last week's EU summit, where the issue of designating a candidate for the European People's Party (EPP) was discussed.

At the meeting, the chancellor voiced her opinion, repeated at the press conference later on, that much of the bargaining will happen after the election, throwing doubt over the EPP’s stated intention to designate a candidate and politicise the election.

Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish Prime Minister, is also said to oppose a politicised Commission, preferring a technocratic vision of the EU's executive body.

While the EPP had scheduled a formal discussion on their campaign frontrunner at their next meeting on 13 November, centre-right leaders decided that they will instead use the meeting to elect a new EPP president, after the death of former president Wilfried Martens earlier this month.

The party has not scheduled a formal date to discuss their candidate, adding to the ambiguity of the internal EPP process.

Meanwhile, the greens, liberal and socialist party, have all kicked of their primary process to nominate their candidate.

>> Read: EU parties line up for Brussels top job nomination

Single candidate ‘still needs to be confirmed’

Among EPP staff, there is no doubt that a candidate will be nominated in time.

“The party has been convinced of the principle of nominating one single candidate since 2004, and we have done so twice with Barroso,” said Kostas Sasmatzoglou, spokesman for the EPP.

“We have stated our position one year ago at our Congress in Bucharest [on 17-18 October 2012]. Now, the question is not so much ‘if’ but ‘how’ we will choose our candidate.”

But a senior EPP source said there was no certainty about the process. “Whether to have a single candidate is what is being discussed right now. The EPP decided on it in Bucharest, but this still needs to be confirmed.”

“Choosing a candidate [for the Commission presidency] in advance means that heads of state have to allocate this post beforehand, instead of negotiating it [as part of] the full package of posts – as they normally do.”

Socialists weigh in the balance

For the EPP, much of the decision will hinge on the coalition talks currently underway in Germany between Angela Merkel’s CDU-CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD).

Among its demands for joining a “grand coalition”, the SPD is putting Germany’s seat at the EU executive in the balance, requesting Merkel to nominate Martin Schulz, the Socialist President of the European Parliament, at the European Commission.

>> Read: German elections launch Schulz towards Commission presidency

But these discussions are still ongoing and there is no indication that Merkel is ready to give away her privilege of nominating Germany’s Commission representative.

“Lots of these discussions are postponed until the moment Merkel is done with the coalition negotiations on her [new] government,” the senior EPP source confirmed.

So what do we know about the EPP’s plans? First, the party will hold a discussion amongst its top leaders sometime during this winter. No decision on names is expected there, with discussions expected to focus on the profile of the candidate. One option would be to agree on a group of campaign leaders from which the EPP could draw from after the election.

The party will eventually confirm whether it has a single candidate at an electoral congress in Dublin on 6-7 March, along with an adoption of its campaign manifesto.

The European elections will be held in all EU countries in May 2014. The Lisbon Treaty states that the European Parliament shall elect the Commission president on the basis of a proposal made by the European Council, taking into account the European elections (Article 17, Paragraph 7 of the TEU). This will apply for the first time in the 2014 elections.

European Parliament, parties and many others have pushed for these parties to nominate their front-runners in the election campaigns. This would make the European elections a de facto race for the Commission president seat, would politicise the campaigns and could increase voter turnout, they say.

But others, including European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, have argued that the European parties’ push for own candidates may not be the best solution. Raising expectations could easily lead to disappointment, Van Rompuy has repeatedly said, calling for caution in case the European Council chooses another candidate than the winning party’s frontrunner.

  • 13 Nov.: Pre-summit meeting of heads of state and government and party leaders, where they will nominate a new president of the party, to succeed the recently deceased Wilfried Martens.
  • 6-7 Mar. 2014: EPP Party congress in Dublin.

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