What’s next in EU’s Game of Thrones after the European Parliament Elections: a quick look ahead

The European Union’s own version of ‘Game of Thrones’ kicked off this week following the weekend’s European Parliament elections. The Liberal ALDE parties, and to a lesser extent the Greens, became the king and queen-makers in the formation of the new assembly and divvying up the EU’s so-called ‘top jobs’.

This is the race to become the new Presidents of the three EU institutions – Commission, Parliament and Council – plus the High Representative (Foreign Policy Chief). There now is the newly added incentive of the next head of the European Central Bank (ECB), although the latter is supposed to remain politically neutral.

While the Greens are unlikely to feature among any of the EU top jobs, it is expected that given their surge in the elections they will be given some policy concessions and some prominent roles on the Parliament Committees when they are dished out in July.

ALDE is likely to push hard on all fronts with the chances of Danish Liberal Margrethe Vestager – the current EU Competition Commissioner — becoming the new Commission President growing by the day.

Her chances of replacing Jean-Claude Juncker were further enhanced at a special summit of EU leaders this week to kick-start the appointments process when current EU Council President Tusk confirmed they agreed that at least two of the top posts should be female.

As expected, the summit — preceded by meetings of the European political groupings to agree their positioning —did not reach any real agreement. 

However, Tusk’s comments that any successful candidate does not necessarily need to be one of the so-called ‘Spitzenkendidaten’ opens the door to the EU’s highly popular Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier becoming the compromise candidate for Commission President and thus damaging the European People’s Party’s Spitzenkandidate Manfred Webber winning the race.

Tusk will now enter into talks with the European Parliament’s political groups ahead of a formal summit in June when the EU leaders are are due to put forward their names for the ‘top jobs’ while at the same time formally ratify the ‘Sibiu Declaration’ setting out the future work programme for the EU over the next five years.

The prominent name so far for Council President is Dutch Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte, while former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė (EPP) has also been mentioned along with former EU Commissioner and World Bank chief Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria.

This post is now seen as secondary to the Commission President, but this might change if the Council decide to put forward a big hitter such as Angela Merkel. Therefore, cutting the Parliament out. But this is unlikely as both EPP and Socialists are clear that the Commission President is the most powerful and their top target.

For the High Representative role, current Commission Vice-President and Socialist lead candidate Frans Timmermans is leading the names.

EP Plenary July 2nd

This will be the first sitting of the Plenary and it is hoped that the President of the Parliament and the political groupings will be agreed. Current Vice-President of the Parliament Mairead McGuinness (Ireland, EPP) and Liberal leader in the Parliament Guy Verhofstadt (Belgium) are my picks to share Parliament’s top post for 2.5 years each.

The EPP have put a brave face on the election results and playing up the fact that they still remain the group with the most votes. The Socialists avoided a disaster enough to keep them in the negotiations. But Verhofstadt will expect something in the carve up after agreeing to back ALDE joining forces with France’s Emmanuel Macron’s Le Marche to form a new, larger political grouping.

The populists did well, but not as well as they thought. However, the Brexit party will be the largest single party in the new Parliament and the populist groups still have enough numbers to create headaches for the parliament’s timetable.

EP Plenary July 16

It is scheduled for the EP to agree on the Committees and the Committee Chairs in this plenary session. However, the Committees are supposed to reflect the Commission structure and make-up, so this could change.

The Commission is expected to continue with its ‘cluster’ approach of grouping a number of policy areas under a Vice-President structure with the latter becoming more powerful.

It is clear that the big fights in the Committees will be in the following areas:

  • Environment
  • Agriculture (CAP reform)
  • Economic and Monetary Affairs
  • Employment and Social Affairs
  • Brexit Steering Group
  • Internal Market and Consumer Protection
  • Budget (Multi Annual Framework negotiations)
  • Industry, Research and Energy may also be watched and any dossiers linked to digital and the single market will receive a lot of interest too.

 

Commission Hearings

Given the fragmentation in the Parliament and the increased number of populist MEPs, this is now likely to be drawn out longer than planned.

State of the Union

Likely to be delayed until Brexit is decided and may now take place in January.

Brexit

The elephant in the room in all this is Brexit and in particular how long the UK MEPs will remain in Brussels as this will greatly impact on the numbers in Parliament and thus the so-called ‘top jobs’.

There is a positive appetite for an extension for Brexit of 12 months after October 31, but that will all depend on who will be the new UK Conservative Party leader, possibly Prime Minister or if there is a General Election or second referendum.

Both the Finnish (from July 1) and Croatian (January 2020) EU Presidencies, have indicated in private that they are planning on the basis that a new European Commission may not be in place before January 2020.

Knowns and unknowns

So what does this all mean for companies and organisations planning their campaigns for the next five years in the EU cycle? 

Well, the famous Donald Rumsfeld quote just about sums it all up : “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

But our advice to our clients at FourTold over the last few months has been to park the politics and to avoid being distracted or caught up in the Brussels ‘bubble’.

Make sure no matter what the final EU institutional make-up and who ends up being the target audience, ensure that your vision, mission, core narrative and key messaging are in place. That should remain the same not matter who you end up peaking to. It should be consistent and easily understandable to stakeholders, media or the public alike. 

Start identifying clear policy asks and mapping your audience. Start to build your relationships now so you can land your messages in a positive environment once the new institutions are in place. 

Don’t allow the political cycle to dictate your strategy. Just make sure it’s adaptable and flexible enough to react to any outcome or event. It should be future-proof.

But our key message has been simple. Don’t wait and use this time wisely. After all failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Image by Alexas_Fotos