Disagreements about who should occupy the key positions at the top of the EU institutions risk undermining the stability of the EU political system. The key issue of that of the presidency of the European Parliament. The current president, Martin Schulz’s term comes to an end in January, and it had previously been agreed that he would stand down at this point, in order to allow a candidate from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) to emerge. However, now Schulz’s centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group are indicating that they will seek to secure his re-election. The conflict is grounded in the agreement made between the two groups after the last European Parliament elections in 2014, and embraces a further disagreement about who should lead another EU institution, the European Council.
In the aftermath of the European elections of 2014, the EPP and S&D made an agreement that made Jean-Claude Juncker, then the EPP candidate, President of the European Commission. In return, Schulz, who had been the S&D candidate for the Commission Presidency, was made President of the European Parliament, for the first two and a half years of the 2014-9 term. Meanwhile, Donald Tusk, also from the EPP, was made President of the European Council. According to Gianni Pittella, the leader of the S&D in the European Parliament, a component of the deal was that Tusk would be replaced by a socialist at the same time as Schulz’s term came to an end. However, others have questioned whether this was included. Nonetheless, as there is no sign of Tusk being replaced, the S&D group is refusing to concede the Parliamentary Presidency, arguing that this would give the EPP control of all three permanent institutional presidencies. Thus there is a very real possibility of a contested vote on the issue in January.
A Precarious Stability
The battle has underlined the extent to which political stability in the EU is dependent on a consensus amongst political groups, given that no single group has anything approaching a majority in the European Parliament. The growth of Eurosceptic groups in recent European Parliament elections has made the alliance between the largest pro-European groups more important than ever. A breakdown of goodwill could thus be damaging to the effectiveness of the European Parliament, and thus of the EU political system as a whole. However, the disruption of the consensus in EU politics may not be an exclusively bad thing; EU leaders are often criticised for being too cosy, as have been evidenced by the closeness of the relationship between Schulz and his former opponent Juncker.
It remains to be seen who will prevail in January, or whether an amicable solution to the question will emerge. However, the battle itself exposes the relative fragility of the EU’s consensus-based system.