Politics & Society
Brussels & Berlin | August 2019
Quarterly Newsletter on the European Parliament and German Bundestag
Heading into the European Parliament elections in May, many pundits and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic cautioned that Europe would soon bear witness to a new era of Euroskeptics elected into the European government. However, the elections’ results brought far less change than many had anticipated, and there was one unexpected but clear winner: democracy. Over half of Europeans turned out to vote, and voting significantly increased in Eastern and Central Europe.
New Energy, Old Establishment
Of the eight main parties in Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) has historically been the largest, holding 217 seats prior to the election. The EPP is regarded as the party of the EU’s founding fathers and produced the EU’s most recent Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker. The second largest party in the European Parliament is the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which is center-left. The other two large groups in Parliament are the European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which has recently been rebranded as Macron’s “Renew Europe” party.
Source: France 24
In the May elections, the center right and center left lost eighty seats, while the surprise victor in these elections were the Greens. The Greens had strong performances in individual countries, translating to greater representation in Parliament. Of the 69 seats won by the Green and European Free Alliance parties, 22 of those seats came from Germany, exhibiting the growing force of the Greens both within domestic and European federal politics. The Greens ultimately picked up fifteen seats in Parliament and quickly demonstrated their newly gained power by threatening to withhold support from Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission president-elect. While some view the “Green Wave” as a challenge to the EPP, in reality, the European Commission has in recent years shown a strong commitment to fulfilling its Paris Climate Agreement goals, underscoring the importance of climate change to parties throughout the European Union and highlighting that the parties’ goals may not be so divergent after all when it comes to climate.
Despite moderate losses, the EPP remains the most powerful party in Brussels. Aside from the EPP’s victory within Parliament itself, its member parties are the leading parties for 14 countries, including Germany. Renew Europe secured the Parliament presidency with candidate David Sassoli, a career Italian journalist, assuming the position. Overall, Parliament currently has 473 pro-EU members versus 251 Euroskeptics (with 27 members unclear), indicating less of a right-ward shift than initially projected.
In terms of committee assignments, most of the committee chairs that directly affect the U.S. have already been chosen, negotiated in backroom meetings in Brussels. David McAllister, a German member of the EPP, will chair the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Bernd Lange, also German but a member of the left-leaning S&D, will chair the Committee on International Trade. Since the S&D is left-of-center and therefore tends to be more trade skeptical, his chairmanship is likely to color the evolving EU-U.S. trade negotiations.
It is likely that Joseph Borrell, a controversial Spaniard and socialist, will replace Federica Mogherini as the next chief diplomat for the EU. If approved, he will assume this position with far more experience than Mogherini had when she assumed the post, but given his tendency for colorful language, it remains to be seen how successful a diplomat he will be.
For a complete breakdown of how the European elections work, from the Parliament to Commission President, see the European Commission’s elections explainer and our very own video animation on European elections.
First Female EU Commission President
On July 16 in a secret ballot election, the European Parliament elected German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen to become the EU Commission’s first ever female president by a margin of only nine votes. Her thin victory margin is a result of Members of Parliament voting against the lack of transparency in the Spitzenkandidat process—not necessarily against the candidate. Protest votes against her indicate mounting pressure to democratize the Commission presidency process as well as a growing skepticism regarding establishment power in Brussels. From within the EPP itself, there also arose early disagreement on whether von der Leyen should lead the Commission.
Von der Leyen’s presidential bid was supported by the three centrist parties—her own EPP, the S&D, and Macron’s Renew Europe party. Others, including some members of the right-wing ECR, also supported her, as did some nonaffiliated delegations. Largely lacking from her support were the two extremes: the far right and far left. Perhaps most important, however, is that she had the backing of all EU 28 leaders.
Given her near loss, von der Leyen’s work is cut out for her when it comes to consensus-building around top legislative priorities. It is up to von der Leyen to appeal not only to the likes of the Hungarian right-wing but to the growing coalition of Greens on the left. In an ode to the Greens, without whose support she would likely not have clinched the victory, she dedicated a significant portion of her July 16 plenary speech to climate change and the need for swift EU-wide action to combat it. Overall, however, von der Leyen’ stuck to the traditionally pro-EU stance of the Commission and EPP, saying, “The world is calling for more Europe. The world needs more Europe.”
Due to her NATO- and defense-focused career, it is probable that von der Leyen will be a more outward looking Commission President than past presidents, many of whom have prioritized internal EU policy over foreign and security policy.
As the European Union aims to have a 50% gender balance throughout EU institutions, women continue to make history on their own. Christine Lagarde has vacated her position at the International Monetary Fund to head the European Central Bank, making her the first woman to hold that post. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has taken over Merkel’s CDU party in Germany, has assumed the position of Germany’s defense minister and is expected to continue to move the dialogue forward regarding a European army. On June 1, Sabine Weyand, a senior EU official once ranked among the most powerful women in Brussels, assumed the role of the EU’s Director-General of Trade, elevating her status not only in Brussels but also in the current EU-U.S. trade negotiations. Other women, such as Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, will maintain top positions in the Commission. In the EU Parliament, 41% of parliamentarians are women, compared with just over 23% in the U.S. Congress.
One Less Female Prime Minister
In July, Boris Johnson became the new British Prime Minister after receiving 92,153 votes from Conservative Party members (0.13 percent of the total UK population). President Trump wished Johnson well on Twitter and likened him to the British version of himself, despite the fact that Johnson once remarked that Trump demonstrated “stupefying ignorance”. In a transparent political move during his bid for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson avoided meeting with Trump during his recent trip to the UK, calculating the potential political fallout from a quick photo op with the American president. Further complicating U.S.-UK relations is that in July, President Trump essentially ousted UK Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch following the release of classified diplomatic cables that derided Trump. Nevertheless, Johnson and Trump share similar ideologies when it comes to Brexit, defense, and trade, three issues of paramount importance to both countries. There is, thus, a sense of optimism that Prime Minister Johnson and his new cabinet can breathe new life into this area of transatlantic relations, especially in the trade realm as the UK and U.S. work together on a post-Brexit free trade agreement. Brexit is scheduled for October 31 (the eve of von der Leyen’s November 1 confirmation), and the European Union has made clear that it is not willing to reopen negotiations.
What to Watch
As business resumes on both sides of the Atlantic after the August break, there are several major policy areas to follow. One major policy area likely to be a focus of the new European government is security, including NATO funding, ongoing Russian interference, and discussion of a European army. Another major area to watch is trade. It is possible that von der Leyen, a fresh face amid tense negotiations, could reinvigorate trade talks, especially following a hard Brexit. Conversely, it is also possible that having a German in Europe’s top position could call more attention to Germany and increase the likelihood of the U.S. imposing auto tariffs. It will be interesting to see how the digital economy plays into discussions of a common transatlantic trade agenda, particularly following the summer announcement by both France and the U.K. that they will begin raising digital taxes on companies with revenues exceeding 750 million euros and 500 million pounds annually. The move was strongly condemned by Members of Congress, who believe the move unfairly targets American tech firms and sets a dangerous precedent against free trade in the digital economy. While resolving disagreements on digital taxation would normally fall into the remit of the WTO, e-commerce discussions lag, and the WTO’s future looks more dubious with each passing day as the EU and U.S. continually fail to reach a consensus on how best to modernize Appellate Body appointments.
Overall, U.S. policymakers can breathe a sigh of relief that changes to the European government are not as seismic as they could have been. In practical terms, the EPP still reigns supreme, but internal pressure from parties growing in power, such as the Greens, will force the Commission to look more seriously at certain policies, including more aggressive responses to climate change, smarter solutions to migration, and how to deal with politically challenging countries such as Hungary. In many ways, the European government has been more prolific in cutting-edge legislation in recent years, and so whether addressing digitalization, climate change, or trade, keeping tabs on Europe will be helpful for U.S. staffers.
How the new European leadership engages with the Trump Administration and whether or not they will be successful in moving the discussion on defense, trade, cybersecurity, and AI closer toward the European agenda remains to be seen. While the U.S. government is currently looking into ways to regulate AI, enforce antitrust law, and conclude trade agreements, it is likely that the EU, now unencumbered by major elections, will produce substantially more legislation on these fronts in the coming months than the Americans will. As new regulatory measures and policies emerge, Americans have a tremendous resource in their friendly neighbors across the ocean.
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