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How to elect a President

Now that all major parties have chosen their nominee for Commission President, it is time for the next question: How can we tell who’s won?


Let’s assume that the result is the same as the most recent polls:

  • S&D: 209
  • EPP: 202
  • GUE-NGL: 67
  • ALDE: 61
  • ECR: 45
  • Greens: 44
  • EFD: 31
  • NI: 92

So who would be the winner of this election?

Across Europe, people unthinkingly seem to assume that the answer is S&D. They have the most seats. But that is a very odd, and frankly not very satisfying answer. Because in every (other) parliamentary democracy, the winner of the election is not the biggest party, but the party that can form a governing coalition.

Angela Merkel didn’t win the most recent German Federal election because her party is the biggest, but because she managed to form a coalition with the SDP. Being the biggest single group simply meant that CDU/CSU got to try first. In other countries, the biggest faction doesn’t even have that advantage. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the question of which party gets to have the first go at forming a governing coalition is settled only after the election, on the basis of a first impression of what is likely to be feasible or not. Famously, the Dutch general election of 1977 resulted in a massive win for the Labour Party, but they were excluded from government all the same. Being the biggest party gets you exactly nothing, unless you are bigger than all other parties combined.

By analogy, I would argue that it is irrelevant whether S&D or EPP end up as the biggest political group after this year’s election. If the EPP come in second, Mr. Juncker should still be appointed President of the Commission if he can win the support of ALDE, ECR and enough of the other right-wing MEPs. Likewise, Mr. Schultz should be appointed regardless of how many seats S&D have, as long as S&D, GUE-NGL, and the Greens combine with some assorted independents to add up to a majority.

Only in the absence of a left-wing or right-wing majority, which is not unlikely given the above election result, should the Parliament resort to a Grand Coalition, whereby the biggest party gets the Commission Presidency and the runner up gets the job of High Representative. In Brussels as elsewhere, Grand Coalitions should always be a last resort, because they are lethal for political life. In Brussels, as elsewhere, reliance on Grand Coalitions makes it impossible for voters to hold politicians to account, given the absence of a viable alternative. How can you “throw the b*stards out” if there are no viable parties to replace them with? But that is a different conversation, one already touched on by The European Citizen in his guest post on the Foederalist Blog this week.

The question is, though, whether EPP and S&D will really respond to the election result in this way. I think they will, particularly if the result above is actually what happens. If EPP end up with fewer seats than S&D, while at the same time the right wins a majority, the “rational” response would be for EPP to abandon its decades-long tradition of doing all major deals with S&D, and to do a deal with the right instead. That assumes, of course, that ALDE prefer Juncker over Schultz, which I think is not unreasonable, and that sufficiently many Eurosceptic MEPS, starting with David Cameron’s ECR, can be made to vote for anyone at all.

The reason why this is the rational strategy is that in this scenario S&D cannot offer EPP anything better than the HR job, which is significantly less valuable than the Commission Presidency. The Presidency of the Parliament, which S&D and EPP have traditionally shared, is less valuable still, and the only job valuable enough to be traded against Barroso’s – the Presidency of the Council – cannot be made part of any negotiated deal without the Council’s consent. S&D cannot do what parties in national parliaments would do, offer legislative concessions in return for support, because it doesn’t control the Parliament’s agenda. Who does? The President of the Commission.

Conclusion: If the Parliament feels that it can force the Council to appoint its chosen candidate – a big if – everything changes. It’s a whole new ball game. Suddenly a Grand Coalition isn’t so appealing anymore for the smaller of the Big Two. If the smaller of the two feels that it can cobble together a winning coalition without the bigger one, the prize on offer for managing to do so is sufficiently large that the temptation would be irresistible. Even if the EPP subsequently need S&D again to make laws, a temporary defection comes with an enormous reward: control over the agenda for the next five years. The other way around is more tricky; if S&D end up the smaller of the two, it is unlikely that they would be able to piece together a majority without the EPP. While S&D’s core support will probably be bigger (S&D, GUE-NGL and Greens vs. EPP, ALDE and ECR), they would always need the votes of independents, which they are unlikely to get.

So let’s hope that the EPP ends up big but just not big enough to beat S&D, and then we might finally see an end to the perpetual Grand Coalition and the start of some legitimate ideological politics in Brussels/Strasbourg.

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