Brussels Faces for the First Time the Risk of an Electoral Deadlock after 9 June

Bernardo de Miguel

6 mins - 1 de Marzo de 2024, 07:00

The swing to the right of the European People’s Party jeopardises progressive support for a second term in office for Von der Leyen.
The elections to the European Parliament on 9 June will place the European Union for the first time at risk of an institutional deadlock similar to that suffered by several countries on the continent after closely contested elections. Ursula von der Leyen’s aspirations for a second term as head of the European Commission, announced on 19 February in Berlin, have the backing of a large part of the European Council (where the 27 EU governments sit). But the German conservative’s candidacy could crash in the European Parliament, where her investiture will hinge on a difficult balance between progressive and pro-European support on the one hand, and ultra-conservative and nationalist support on the other. 

A deadlock would leave Brussels with an acting Commission at a particularly turbulent geopolitical moment, marked by the foreseeable national reverberations of 9 June (with three major European governments – the German, French and Spanish – facing a severe electoral setback, according to the polls), the threat of a major Russian offensive against Ukraine and the tremendous risk of a Trump victory in the US.

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The German will need the support of at least 361 MEPs and recent ECFR vote projections for 9 June give a majority of up to 390 seats to the three political groups – Popular, Socialist and Liberal – on which Von der Leyen has relied during the first term. But the German is aware that the margin is slim, especially after the bad experience of 2019. Five years ago, she was “invested” with only 383 votes in favour out of the 444 votes cast by the three groups of the presumed majority. Defections in the secret ballot nearly cost Von der Leyen her seat, as she was elected by just nine votes over the required majority (374).

Since then, the EPP has been making nods to its right wing in the Chamber, joining forces with even the most extreme seats. Last Tuesday, for example, the vote on the so-called Nature Restoration Act showed the emerging alliance of the EPP with the far right and Eurosceptics, who voted together against one of the key elements of the Green Pact defended by the Commission. The law was approved thanks to the favourable vote of socialists, liberals, greens, and the left.

The balance will be more fragile in the next legislature, even though the far right seems to be able to impose its agenda. The ultra-right parties, according to the ECFR, would remain at around 27% of the seats even if Le Pen, Meloni, Kaczynski, Salvini, and Orbán, who are now divided between different parliamentary groups, are added together. With some 200 seats out of a total of 720, they would not reach the threshold of 33%, according to analysts. 

But these far-right MEPs could become the mainstay of Von der Leyen’s support, thus undermining the understanding between the EPP and the European Socialists. The rift in the grand coalition looks set to widen if the president’s work programme for the next parliamentary term veers towards trade protectionism, environmental dithering or a heavy-handed approach to migration and asylum.

Alarm bells have already gone off among the Socialists and their main representative in the Commission, the vice-president of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, has recommended that Von der Leyen “focus on ensuring that her party, the European PP, does not fall into the temptation of allying itself with the ultras, thus abandoning its traditional alliances”.

The German candidate has so far indicated that she will not seek the vote of Putin’s friends, nor of Ukraine’s enemies, nor of those who undermine the rule of law. This vague perimeter seems to clearly leave out Marine Le Pen’s party (RN, winner in France according to the polls), Matteo Salvini’s Lega (a known Kremlin sympathiser), or Fidesz, the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (the only EU leader who maintains friendly relations with Putin).  

Outside this cordon sanitaire, the Commission president has been seen and loved by leaders as diverse as the liberals Emmanuel Macron and Mark Rutte, the socialist Pedro Sánchez, and the far-right Georgia Meloni. A two- and three-way bargaining that allows the candidate to gain support, but at the risk of some votes being incompatible with others.

In order to become president, von der Leyen will have to pass two rounds of voting. First, as an individual candidate for the presidency. In the event of a slip-up, the European Council would have one month to propose another candidate. But the second vote is even trickier because the 27 members of the Commission, together, will also need an absolute parliamentary majority. And this group will inevitably include representatives of ultra-conservative or anti-European governments, such as those of Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, and perhaps the Netherlands, which may be difficult for progressive groups to accept.

Deadlock has already been bordering in Brussels in 2019, with Von der Leyen’s election by the skin of her teeth and a month’s delay in taking office due to the rejection of several commissioners. The final stretch of the legislature has also accentuated the fissures among the pro-European majority, especially in agricultural, environmental, energy and migration policy. The consensus that usually dominates EU policy is beginning to show its limitations. And Brussels, which until now had been spared the governmental interim suffered in countries such as Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands, is exposed for the first time to the risk of a Commission in office for many months. A danger that comes at a very bad time.
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