BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The job of picking the five names that will hold the European Union’s top jobs and help shape its future just got a lot more difficult after EU assembly elections highlighted the deepening political fragmentation of the 28-country bloc.
The two biggest centrist groups in the current European Parliament – the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) to the right and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) on the left – will no longer hold a majority in the new 751-seat chamber, estimates showed.
Together, the two are expected to be down from 401 lawmakers in the outgoing chamber to 324 seats in the next five-year European Parliament, short of the 376-vote majority needed to approve a new head of the bloc’s executive European Commission.
The complex parliamentary arithmetics will be on the table when all 28 national EU leaders meet in Brussels on Tuesday to fight over who would take over at the helm of the Commission and the parliament itself but also the bloc’s foreign policy, central bank and as the chair of EU summits.
These five people will be running European Union policies from later in 2019, shaping the bloc’s responses to challenges from climate change to a resurgent Russia, the complex ties with the United States and China, cyber threats and tech regulation.
Already on Sunday, the jockeying for position began – albeit with an awareness of the more difficult task ahead.
“It looks like the EPP has a very good chance of being the biggest group,” a deputy head of the group, Esther de Lange, said of the initial results.
“But we also see fragmentation and the shrinking of the center,” de Lange added.
Talks between political groups start on Monday, with ALDE, a liberal alliance boosted by votes cast in France for President Emmanuel Macron, set to becoming the third power, followed by the Greens, relishing in their strong showing.
“No solid majority is possible without our new group. By the end of this election night, it will be clear that not the populists and nationalists have won the most seats, but our pro-European group,” ALDE head Guy Verhofstad said of a bloc of about 100 lawmakers he seeks to build.
But the socialists, liberals and greens together would still lack a majority, with the latest projection putting them at 317 seats.
And the picture was mixed, with the far-right, eurosceptic National Front winning over Macron in France, the far-right League emerging victorious in Italy, Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party winning more than half of votes and Poland’s ruling nationalists coming in ahead of the united opposition.
A centrist, pro-EU coalition would still be possible in the new chamber that will sit for the first time on July 2nd. But it would be more difficult to piece together among more numerous partners, according to the European Parliament’s estimates.
The EPP said their lead candidate, German conservative Manfred Weber, should become the new head of the bloc’s executive. But the socialists refused to back him, pitching one of their own, a Dutch liberal Frans Timmermans, to EU leaders.
If the parliament fails to rally behind one candidate, it would only weaken its chances with EU leaders, who will nominate a person to lead the Commission and many of whom oppose following the European Parliament’s pick.
The European Union’s Brexit negotiator, Frenchman Michel Barnier and World Bank head, Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva, are also in the running. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists on Sunday won their second set of elections in a row, boosting their ambition to secure a top Brussels job.
EU leaders’ chairman Donald Tusk expects the May 28 summit to show no unanimity behind a name, but give him a mandate for further consultations, which he hopes to conclude in June.
Geographies, party politics, gender balance as well as the candidates’ profiles all play a role in the obscure process to find a new leadership for the world’s largest trading bloc of 500 million people.
The European Parliament must then confirm the pick. Any protracted logjam between national capitals and the bloc’s joint chamber in Brussels would leave the EU struggling to make any major decisions, weakening its hand on the global scene.
Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Mark John