Merkel’s Backroom Clout Shows in EU Jobs Carve Up: Brussels Beat

  • Clues due this week about who will be next EU Parliament chief
  • Current assembly leader Schulz decides against third-term bid

Support for Merkel Rises as She Seeks Fourth Term

An elaborate European Union game of musical chairs will near an end this week as candidates line up for the presidency of the EU Parliament in a contest that, regardless of the result, sheds light on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s clout.

The selection will say a lot about how national and supranational politics interact in Europe in general -- and Germany in particular. It will also indicate the political balance of power in the EU’s main decision-making institutions over the next two-and-a-half years.

At issue is whether Europe’s Christian Democratic party, which Merkel dominates, will fill the three top posts simultaneously: chair of the gatherings of EU heads of government, president of the European Commission and chief of the 28-nation Parliament. At the moment, the group has a grip on two of the jobs and is gunning for leadership of the European legislative body.

A peek into months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering will be offered on Nov. 29 when the spotlight falls on the European Parliament’s fourth-largest party, the pro-business Liberals. They are due to decide on Tuesday in Brussels whether to field a candidate for the assembly presidency that’s up for grabs after Martin Schulz, a German Socialist, said he would vacate the post in two months.

“One can’t rule out a surprise, like a successor from the Liberals,” said Marco Incerti of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “Given the current political climate, and citizens’ ever-growing mistrust of politicians, the main parties may want to signal that the top jobs aren’t allocated on the basis of backroom deals made in a vacuum.”

The question confronting the Liberals, who are led by Guy Verhofstadt, the assembly’s point person for the upcoming Brexit talks, is the durability of a 2014 power-sharing agreement between the Christian Democrats and Socialists, the two biggest factions. Under that deal, Schulz was handed an unprecedented second two-and-a-half year term until January 2017 and the Christian Democrats were promised the post for the remainder of the current legislative period until mid-2019.

Schulz, arguably the strongest leader the EU Parliament has ever had, strained the accord by pressing behind the scenes for a third term before announcing on Thursday that he would step down and re-enter German politics.

Tusk’s Reappointment

To the consternation of the Christian Democrats, who are led by a German ally of Merkel named Manfred Weber, Schulz had picked up support to stay in his current job from Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the Brussels-based commission, the EU’s executive arm. Juncker is a Luxembourg Christian Democrat whom EU national leaders appointed commission chief in 2014 for five years.

Sitting in the third big European seat is EU President Donald Tusk, a Christian Democratic former Polish prime minister whose two-and-a-half-year term chairing the bloc’s summits ends in May 2017. Tusk’s reappointment is opposed by the current Polish government under the Law & Justice party, which has clashed with the EU over democratic values.

Because giving Tusk a second term doesn’t require unanimity among EU leaders and most other governments in the bloc don’t want to hand a domestic political gift to Poland’s Law & Justice, he is almost guaranteed to stay in the EU presidency until mid-2019.

All of which leaves the question of whether it’s politically acceptable in the EU for the Christian Democrats to be in the top three jobs at the same time. While such a constellation wouldn’t be unprecedented (it happened between January 2010 and January 2012), it would come at a time when Europe’s main pro-EU parties -- Christian Democrats, Socialists, Liberals and Greens -- are trying to fend off populist challenges in countries across the EU and hold the political center ground.

‘Opaque Deals’

The Socialists argue that the Christian Democrats shouldn’t monopolize all three top posts and are even leaving open the possibility of putting forward their own candidate to succeed Schulz. One member of the Liberals, French native Sylvie Goulard, who sits on the EU Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee, threw her hat in the ring on Nov. 25 without any guarantee her group will offer its support and with a call for an end to “opaque deals.”

For the time being, the Christian Democrats intend to pick their candidate for EU Parliament president on Dec. 13, with likely or declared contenders including budget expert Alain Lamassoure of France, former European Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani of Italy and Irish national Mairead McGuinness, a vice-president of the assembly in charge of information policy and citizens’ relations.

The group’s argument to date has boiled down to a simple demand that the Socialists respect the 2014 gentlemen’s agreement.

But in the wake of Schulz’s Nov. 24 resignation announcement, Weber left the door open to a possible compromise candidate from outside the Christian Democrats to become the EU Parliament’s next leader. He said the assembly’s centrist forces need to work together to limit the influence of anti-European members whose numbers surged in the 2014 legislative elections

“We have a big responsibility,” Weber said on Thursday.

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