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Last week the European citizens had the opportunity to help shape the European agenda for the next five years. And… many stayed home, others treated it as a referendum or popularity contest against the sitting national (or regional) coalition or their president. Even in Belgium, home of the (in)famous EU Bubble, where staying at home was not an option, the European elections hardly attracted any real debate or media attention in the midst of the regional and federal elections.

With so many crucial decisions and policy priorities decided at European level and over 70% of national regulations and legislation originating in Brussels, it remains remarkable that overall voter turnout was barely 51.01% (though slightly up from last time), and even far lower in Croatia (21,35%) or Lithuania (28,35%). It seems to suggest that nothing was at stake or that voters still underestimate the role of the European Parliament in shaping the next five years.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The stakes at European level were high – nothing less than the direction the next European Institutions will take: more or less Green Deal, how to deal with security and migration, the war in Ukraine, a new industrial policy, how to deal with innovation and artificial intelligence… all of this will depend on what majority will emerge in the new European Parliament and the European Council. The election result will also have an impact on the formation of the next European Commission and how the most crucial positions will be distributed amongst the political groups.

Although the right wing parties and the far right booked significant successes, the three traditional parties, i.e. the conservative European Peoples Party (EPP), the socialist Social Democrats (S&D) and the liberals from Renew still hold the keys to the castle if they agree amongst themselves with over 400 of the 720 seats in the new European Parliament. However, while the EPP is in the winning mood and the S&D consolidated, Renew lost significantly. This means that the EPP has leverage to ask for concessions in the talks it started immediately after the elections or could look elsewhere for support.

Crucial will be what direction the ECR group will take and who will (be allowed to) join their group. A lot will depend on Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni whose party together with the Polish PiS are the dominant forces in ECR. Will they accept Viktor Orban’s Fidesz, Geert Wilders PVV or Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in to secure the place of third formation in the European Parliament, or will they settle for less votes, but try to profile themselves as a potential conservative partner to EPP? The parties / political groups will move the chess pieces around the board in the coming days and depending on who they appoint as their new leaders between now and July 3rd, things will become much clearer.

Those new party leaders will play an important role in the allocation of the top positions at European level: the appointment of the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and of the President of the European Parliament. They will also divide amongst themselves the presidencies of the Committees in the European Parliament, who can significantly influence the agenda-setting and speed up, delay or significantly modify the proposals coming from European Commission and European Council.

The Council, i.e. the gathering of Heads of State or Prime Ministers, will propose a nominee for Commission President. Preparations are underway already, with a Summit on 17 June to discuss the outcome of the European elections in general terms and then a marathon session on 27 & 28 June, when the national governments should reach agreement on one candidate for Commission President, and each also submits an envelope with 2 names of designate portfolio Commissioners for their Member State to this new Commission President designate.

The name of the Commission President designate is passed on to the European Parliament, which needs to endorse this candidate by absolute majority of 361 votes out of 720. Hence the importance of building a strong coalition. The European Parliament will have to endorse the Commission President candidate in either its opening session mid-July, or in its first formal plenary in September.

Once appointed, the new Commission President will compose his/her team on basis of the names submitted by the Member States. Those candidates will be subjected to hearings in the European Parliament in the period October-November before the full Commission is confirmed in November and enters into office. Those hearings are not routine and several candidate commissioners have stumbled at this hurdle in the recent past, especially when there was no consensus between the leading formations in the European Parliament.

It is always dangerous to speculate, but conventional wisdom in the Brussels bubble seems to be that Ursula von der Leyen can prepare herself for a next mandate of five years at the head of the European Commission. That gives the EPP already one big trophy and also the candidature of Roberta Metsola to continue as President of the European Parliament seems to be relatively certain. The S&D candidate for the President of the European Council, former Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, also seems very likely, despite some concerns about an ongoing investigation in his homeland. Renew’s Kaja Kallas, current Estonian Prime Minister, would get the job of High Representative, the EU foreign policy chief – although also some other names are cited. It also looks like the whole puzzle would be complete by the European Council in June.

The three main parties will want to lock in their wins as quickly as possible and according to Brussels insiders, nobody wants to wait until the Hungarian Presidency of the European Union in July, when Prime Minister Orban would set the pace, together with outgoing EU Council President Charles Michel. Very few of the Heads of Government seem eager to tempt fate and rely on them to bring the ship to safe harbour. But, with approximately 100 MEPs still needing to be allocated to different Political Groups, and with Macron’s snap French parliament election on the horizon, not all the pieces of the puzzle are visible yet … making a firm bet premature.

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