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Euroscepticism on the March in the EU Commission's Upcoming Elections

27 Mar 2024
By Jasper Hufschmidt Morse
Ursula von der Leyen elected as European Commission President in 2019. Source: European Parliament. /

As Europe heads to the polls in June, the consequential position of EU Commission president is being contested. How sure can Ursula von der Leyen be of a second term?  

The European Union (EU) is comprised of numerous, sometimes difficult to comprehend, institutions and positions – from the European Commission to the European Council. Yet, the Presidency of the European Commission is arguably the most consequential. This position has been held by Ursula von der Leyen who, on 19 February, announced her bid for a second term. As other contestants for this office appear relatively unknown, some might see von der Leyen’s re-election as a foregone conclusion.  

However, when Europeans vote in June, they will not see von der Leyen’s, or the other candidates’ names, on their ballots. Rather, they vote for familiar national parties who form the EU’s respective party blocs. Herein, European conservatives – such as von der Leyen’s German Christian Democrats (CDU) or France’s Les Républicains – merge into the European People’s Party (EPP) who together anoint their group’s candidate. Likewise, the European social-democrats form the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Other political groupings include the liberal Renew Europe (formerly ALDE), the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), the right-wing Identity and Democracy (ID), as well as the moderately eurosceptic European Conservative and Reformists (ECR), and The Left. Of these, the EPP, S&D, Renew, Greens/EFA, and ID are most significant as each exceeded at least 10 percent of the total vote at the 2019 European elections, with the EPP having received 24.23 percent. Respectively, these blocs represent the main political streams of European politics.  

While von der Leyen was chosen as the EPP candidate on 7 March, the S&D chose the Luxembourgian Nicolas Schmit, making him von der Leyen’s most significant rival. Schmit is currently serving as the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights. While the contest appears to be between von der Leyen and Schmit, Renew, Greens/EFA, and ID could each affect the balance of power and the election process. On 20 March, Renew nominated the German politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann as their candidate.  

The EU Commission president is formally nominated by the European Council, which includes the heads of government of all EU states. Currently, the Council includes ten national leaders affiliated with the EPP, six affiliated with Renew, five with S&D, as well as two with the ECR, and additionally four “unaffiliated” leaders (including Hungary’s far-right prime minister Victor Orban). Nonetheless, and irrespective of these affiliations, the Council must base their nomination on the election outcome. According to current polling, the EPP is the undisputed frontrunner.  

The Council’s nominee – most likely von der Leyen – must then be confirmed by the European Parliament which comprises 705 members (MEPs). Polling suggests that the EPP will maintain its 178 seats, while the S&D will slightly decline to 137, and Renew will reach 81. Currently, von der Leyen’s Commission is a coalition of the EPP, S&D, and Renew. However, polls suggest the ID and ECR could significantly increase their seats from 59 currently to 85, and from 25 to 79, respectively – reflecting a broader rightward shift throughout Europe. Meanwhile, the Greens/EFA could significantly diminish from 72 MEPs to merely 44. To win in parliament, the Council’s candidate must secure at least 353 votes. Assuming current polling numbers materialise, von der Leyen’s coalition would easily be re-elected with approximately 396 votes – assuming all EPP, S&D and Renew MEPs support her. However, together ID and ECR could form a considerable right-wing and eurosceptic bloc of 164 MEPs.  

Predicting the outcome of June’s election is difficult as pollsters tabulate trends in all 27 EU member states individually and then adjust their impacts for population-based representation in the parliament. This explains variations between polls, with Europe Elects predicting the EPP winning 181 MEPs, S&D 140, ID 92, ECR 83, Renew 82, and the Greens/EFA 49. This would give the right-wing and eurosceptic bloc 175 MEPs.  

Another considerable factor is the EU’s low voter participation. Between 1979 and 2014, turnout for European elections declined across the continent, reaching its trough at 42.61 percent in 2014. At the last election in 2019, turnout recovered somewhat, reaching 50.66 percent. The ongoing low turnout signals disinterest in European politics as only those who are genuinely interested in, and passionate about, politics bother to vote. This may benefit the political fringe as centrist voters tend to stay home, while highly motivated fringe voters will turn up to vote. This could skew the composition of the next parliament.   

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron has in recent days taken steps to establish another European-level party called “New Europe.” Though not yet an official EU parliamentary grouping, New Europe already informally includes 22 MEPs from France, Romania, Denmark, Slovenia, and Poland, from the current Renew bloc. While purportedly formed to unite European liberals, including Renew and the smaller European Democratic Party (EDP), it could undermine Strack-Zimmermann’s candidacy, weaken Renew’s seat share, and further fragment the EU’s parliamentary voting blocs.  

Though unlikely, were von der Leyen to be rejected by the parliament, for instance due to dissenting S&D, Renew or Greens/EFA votes, and opposition from ID and ECR, the Council would have to nominate anew. In this scenario, they would likely nominate Schmit as the runner-up. Compared to 2019, when von der Leyen enjoyed the backing of fellow EPP-affiliated German chancellor Angela Merkel, today the influential position of Germany in the Council is filled by a S&D-affiliated chancellor, Olaf Scholz. Were von der Leyen be unable to pass the 353-threshold, Scholz would likely advocate for Schmit. This would undoubtedly spell chaos as those who oppose von der Leyen (especially on the far-right) would probably not swing to support a centre-left nominee.  

Ironically, von der Leyen herself was not elected as the EPP’s nominee in 2019 but was unexpectedly nominated by Merkel over the EPP’s candidate, Manfred Weber. This showed that, while campaigning might centre around the various parties’ nominees, the Council can also surprisingly decide to nominate someone else entirely, provided they broadly belong to the winning bloc. Von der Leyen, at the time, was not a prominent EU politician, but was plucked from the German defence portfolio during a consulting scandal surrounding her office. This earned her considerable criticism, for instance, from the prominent German S&D politician Martin Schulz who continues to call for her resignation 

Von der Leyen, according to The Economist, is currently the most competent European leader, demonstrating resolve during the COVID-19 pandemic, post-Brexit negotiations, and Ukraine War. However, her support for Israel during the Israel-Hamas conflict may also alienate some on the centre-left and provoke dissenting votes form some in the S&D or Greens/EFA. Meanwhile, her pro-EU stance provokes considerable right-wing opposition from ID and ECR.  

Ideally, von der Leyen can return her coalition, gain the backing of Scholz, Macron, and the Council, and secure a second term without much chaos. This requires broad support from MEPs, including the EPP, S&D and Renew, but also from Greens/EFA and possibly New Europe. The continent is faced with manifold challenges, stable and pragmatic leadership is needed. For that, von der Leyen has proven to be a prime candidate.  

Jasper Hufschmidt Morse is a fourth-year student of International Security Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, majoring in Middle East and Central Asian Studies. He previously lived and worked in Germany, where he received the “Abitur” diploma. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.