At the end of June, a heat wave struck western and central Europe, setting new temperature records for June in Germany and the Czech Republic. While temperatures have since cooled somewhat, European and German politics show no signs of doing the same. After marathon negotiations, European leaders broke with the “Spitzenkandidat process” whereby European political parties appoint lead candidates for senior positions ahead of the European elections to choose a new slate of leaders. Meanwhile, Germany is experiencing tectonic shifts in its party landscape.
Let me take these developments in turn:
Following the European elections in late May and weeks of speculation about who would get Europe’s top jobs, last week European leaders nominated German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the next President of the European Commission after 48 hours of intense negotiations, including an all-night session from Sunday into Monday. But, her nomination is quite controversial – across Europe and in Germany – because she was not actually on the ballot. The European Parliament had put forward Manfred Weber and former Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans as the Spitzenkandidaten, but they were sidelined when the lengthy negotiations failed to produce consensus. Now it is unclear whether von der Leyen will be confirmed as the consensus candidate. Based on press reports, this week she is working with her transition team and making the rounds in Brussels to meet with parliamentarians. She is probably also working on her speech for next week’s plenary session. Given the deep divisions in the European Parliament, she will have to garner support from more than the center-right Christian democrats and the center-left social democrats.
The nomination of von der Leyen marks the end of the Spitzenkandidat selection process – but it also is an indication of how fractured the European Parliament has become after the last European parliamentary elections. Even mainstream members of the European Parliament (MEPs) may be tempted to vote against von der Leyen in the secret ballot to be held next week in Strasbourg given the media reports of how disenchanted the parliamentarians are with the selection process for the Commission President and other senior positions.
In order to win, von der Leyen will need 376 votes in Parliament, or the absolute majority of MEPs (not just the majority of votes cast). In order to reach that threshold, she needs the votes of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), as well as the liberal Renew Europe. If all of the MEPs from these three groups vote in favor of von der Leyen, she would have 444 votes. Add the Greens, and she would have an additional 74 votes – bringing her to 518. In theory, this should give her an adequate buffer – even if some of the parliamentarians from these four groups do not vote for her.
However, given that this will be a secret ballot, the big question is how many from this core group will defect. Many conservatives are frustrated. The Greens and some key members of the center-left have publicly opposed the deal. There is some concern that German Social Democrats may not vote for her – including former fellow Cabinet minister in Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition government and current Vice President of the European Parliament Katarina Barley as well as the leader of the SPD delegation, Jens Geier.
How these political developments play out in Brussels and Strasbourg has an impact on German domestic politics. In a television interview, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, warned that if an SPD vote against von der Leyen leads to her defeat in Parliament, it would be “a huge burden on the work of the government and the coalition” in Berlin.
Although Ursula von der Leyen faces an uphill battle, it is likely that she will be elected as the next President of the European Commission. If she loses, it could trigger an institutional crisis within the European Union, which would give the anti-EU parties on the fringes of the political spectrum the kind of victory that they were denied in the parliamentary elections in late May. Her loss could also lead to the collapse of the Grand Coalition in Berlin.
The narrative around von der Leyen’s ascendance to Europe’s top job is an interesting lens through which to look at the German political landscape, where there have been tectonic shifts in recent months. The most recent polls have the Christian Democrats and the Greens polling at 26 percent and the Social Democrats and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) at 12 percent. Both the Christian Democrats and the SPD are losing support to the Greens and the AfD. Germany’s political center appears to be crumbling and the SPD is in serious trouble. The main question is how long the Grand Coalition can hold. To call for new elections would be political suicide for both of the traditional Volksparteien, so they are likely to try to stick it out. In addition to the vote on von der Leyen as the new President of the European Commission, state elections in three of Germany’s eastern Länder this fall will be the developments to watch, because a poor showing could lead to the collapse of a fragile coalition government. But, the stakes are high. Those in government know that they need to try to hold out …
Just this week, the ACG hosted a Hot Topics Call with Tobias Lindner, who has been a member of the Greens since 1998 and has served in the Bundestag since 2011, where he sits on both the Budget and the Defense committees. He is also his party’s spokesperson on national security. We talked about the rise of the Greens in recent polls and Germany’s political landscape. You can listen to our conversation here. We also discussed the shifts in German and European party politics at a Breakfast Briefing with Dr. Johann Wadephul, the Deputy Chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag.
We’ll know more about the direction of the European Union next week after the ballot for a new President of the Commission, but European — and German — politics remain interesting to follow.