Opinion & Analysis

Survey results: who will lead the EU after 2019?

How will the EU institutions look like after the 2019 reshuffle?

This is the question on everyone’s mind in Brussels, but the answers differ based on the information that one has (one’s personal mini-bubble). In order to get an overview of the expectations of the EU affairs community as a whole,  VoteWatch Europe has surveyed more than 1.000 members of the broader ‘EU bubble’ (which also includes national civil servants, whose views are more reflective of the different national perspectives) for their views regarding the reallocation of top EU positions in 2019 (Presidencies of European Commission, European Parliament, European Council and European Central Bank). This survey, which is based on one of the biggest samples ever collected from among the EU experts and practitioners, showcases a plurality of views on what we should expect from next year.

The respondents also weighed in on whether Germans hold too much influence at the EU level (given the recent controversies), on the future performance of S&D (as the group that suffers the most from the political transformations across the continent), as well as on the upcoming moves of the 5 Star Movement (as the new biggest party in Italy).

The answers show a convergence of expectations on who is the likeliest next President of the European Commission and that of the European Parliament, but less so with regard to the Council, while there is a variety of views among the geographical and professional categories on whether Germany holds too much influence at the EU level.

The cover image of this report shows how the EU institutions would look like at the end of 2019, according to a plurality of the respondents. While the picture might strike some of our readers for its lack of diversity (from the political, geographical and demographic points of view), it highlights which candidates are currently seen as leading the (behind-the-scene) race to take over the respective EU institutions. This (“educated crowd” generated) scenario complements our own VoteWatch forecasts on what is likely to happen next year.

Over 1.000 EU practitioners answered our call for sharing their expectations on who will lead the EU through the end of the turbulent 2010s decade. The diversity of respondents’ backgrounds and origins is, generally, a strong guarantee of the (current) overall balance of expectations and opinions expressed.

A plurality of respondents work for the EU institutions (36%), followed by experts from the private sector (25%), academia and think tanks (11%), national governments (10%), NGOs (7%) and mass media (5%).

The geographical composition of the audience also reflects the wide outreach of our survey. While not perfectly balanced (Benelux and Nordic countries are over-represented to the detriment of CEE countries),the population of surveyed experts covers each Member State, with the addition of respondents from countries with strong political ties to the EU, such as Norway and Switzerland, but also the US, Canada and many others. The sample somewhat reflects the demographic composition of the EU, with a plurality of German respondents (15%), followed by French ones (12%).

The respondents are also very well anchored in EU’s current affairs: 72% deal with EU policy making every day, while 92% deal with EU affairs at least once a month.

A note of caution is, however, needed: this survey by no means aims at showing which potential candidates are more popular than others because: 1) as we all know, the ‘EU bubble’ is not necessarily representative of the preferences of the overall EU population and 2) the respondents were asked to forecast who is likely to win, rather than express their own preferences (even though in some cases our own natural biases tend to influence our expectations).

A French is highly likely to take over the European Commission, according to half of the respondents

About half of respondents expect a French EPP member to take over the helm of the European Commission in 2019. While 37% see former European Commissioner Michel Barnier as the clear favorite, the current head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, is also quoted high (13%), ending up being the third most likely successor of Jean-Claude Juncker in 2019.

Michel Barnier remains in pole-position to win the race for the top EU job in 2019 because of his increased public visibility as the chief negotiator on Brexit, as well as his strong political profile within the EPP (he was Juncker’s main challenger already in 2014). According to the Spitzenkandidaten process, the leading candidate of the political group winning the EP elections has a strong chance of becoming President of the European Commission (we’ll discuss the challenges to this process later). As the EPP is expected to win the elections next year, the main challenge for Barnier will be to get elected as the EPP leading candidate at the EPP Convention in November.

Barnier’s plans might be disrupted by the alleged scepticism towards his candidature by the two most powerful national leaders in the EU, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. While Angela Merkel is rumored to prefer French Christine Lagarde, another female politician, Danish Margrete Vestager, seems to be high up in Macron’s list of preferences. While the Spitzenkandidaten system is seen as hostile towards Macron’s European ambitions, some respondents have pointed out in their comments that a potential Macron’s movement merged with ALDE could have a chance at beating the EPP in 2019, paving the way for Vestager, Verhofstadt or other potential candidates representing this coalition to succeed Juncker. However, Macron would need to convince many political parties to join his movement if he is really serious about taking the Commission away from the EPP, as the polling numbers of ALDE and his party combined are still much lower than those of the EPP.

According to our respondents, other EPP members, such as current Vice-President of the European Commission Jyrki Katainen could also have a shot at replacing Juncker next year (9% of respondents). The Finnish centre-right wing politician might make use of the ground advantage to push his candidature for the EPP Spitzenkandidat at the party convention in Helsinki.

The broader EU affairs community sees much smaller chances for a potential S&D candidate to lead the European Commission during the next term. This is due to S&D worsening polling numbers, which make it virtually impossible for the group led by Udo Bullmann to come on top of the EPP next year. Still, one year in politics is a long time and the S&D parties could try to boost their credentials as a credible alternative to the EPP during the electoral campaign. From among the Social Democrat politicians, Dutch Frans Timmermans (current First Vice-President of the European Commission) and Italian Federica Mogherini (current High Rappresentative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) are the most likely to be elected as the S&D leading candidates, while slightly less respondents were willing to bet on Moscovici (current Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs) as the potential S&D Spitzenkandidat.

EPP leader Weber is seen as favorite to replace Tajani at the helm of the Parliament

It is not a piece of cake to forecast who is going to be the next President of the EP, given the high number of potential candidates. Still, the current leader of the EPP group, Manfred Weber, has taken a clear lead in the race according to 34% of respondents. Having been the chairman of the largest political group in the EP for almost 5 years, Weber is deemed to hold the cards he needs to push through his candidature.

However, he would need to convince other political groups to support his candidature, as the EPP will be far from having an absolute majority in the next EP term. The increasing fragmentation of the political landscape is likely to make this exercise even more difficult, increasing the uncertainty on the outcome of the race.

If Weber decides to run, his opponents could try to undermine him by pointing out that the Germans already hold other important positions at the EU level and that the EPP cannot take all the key positions for itself. However, this kind of arguments did not prevent Tajani from becoming President of the EP, despite the fact that the EPP was already holding the Presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council, while other Italians were heading the ECB and the office of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

The main challenge for Weber (apart from his own alternative plans) could actually come from his own political group, as Irish Mairead McGuinness (current Vice-President of the EP) is seen as a viable alternative to the Bavarian politician (by 18% of respondents), while Italian Antonio Tajani is seen as less likely (9%) to get a second term at the top of the EU legislative institution. While Social Democratic candidates do not seem to pose a strong challenge to the EPP at this point in time (with French EP Vice-President Sylvie Guillaume leading over S&D chairman Udo Bullmann), 17% of respondents think that the current chair of the ALDE group, Belgian Guy Verhofsadt, could have a chance at stripping the EPP off the Presidency of the European Parliament. In fact, the EPP might need the support of other political groups in order to get its candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission approved by the European Parliament, which means that the group led by Weber might have to give in on the EP Presidency. In this case, either ALDE or the potential new group by Macron are likely to be in pole position to take over the EP, as reported in our VoteWatch scenario for 2019.

Open race to replace Tusk, as no individual candidate takes a clear lead

While, in case of the questions regarding the other European institutions, we found that some individual candidates are deemed to be ahead early into the game, ‘EU Bubblers’ were more undecided on who will get the Presidency of the European Council in 2019. If the election of the EC President is (to some extent) constrained by the Spitzenkandidaten process and the President of the EP is going to be a leading MEP from one of the mainstream groups, there seems to be a wider choice for Tusk’s successor.

Among the acting Prime Ministers, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is considered to be the most likely to get the position in 2019 (25% of respondents), closely followed by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė (20%). Quite interestingly, we have spotted different trends across professional segments of our surveyed population: the respondents from the private sector lean towards Rutte, while the top candidate among the civil servants working in the EU institutions is Grybauskaitė. We also observed different trends across geographical segments of the surveyed public: Grybauskaitė is the most likely to win according to CEE practitioners, whereas Western Europeans (in particular those from Benelux countries) are more inclined to bet on Rutte’s European ambitions.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte has a strong political profile and experience in dealing with complex coalition-building processes (mostly because of the Dutch political fragmentation). He could also get the support of the right-leaning groups, in case the EPP needs/decides to trade away this position. Still, Rutte’s vocal criticism of the plans towards further integration, in particular in the Eurozone, gets him little support from among the French and the other Southern countries. Rutte would have to soften some of his positions in order to get the top job at the Council.

The geographical factor might play in favour of the Lithuanian

President Grybauskaitė, as the current debate indicates that the European Council is the most likely institution to be headed by a CEE leader. While formally an independent, she is close to the EPP and could count on the support  of Germany and her fellow CEE neighbours.

Among the potential EPP challengers to the two leading candidates, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar could be the one taking over the Council according to 13% of respondents. Varadkar’s visibility is currently very high because of the key role played by Ireland in the Brexit negotiations. If elected, the Irish will gain further traction in shaping the debate on the future trade relations between the EU and the UK, which is a vital issue for his country of origin.

Another EPP member, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis is seen as a viable option by 9% of respondents, while outgoing Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni is the front-runner from among the potential S&D candidates (8% of respondents).

As things stand, what the broader ALDE and the S&D can target are the Council Presidency and the first VP of the Commission.  If Rutte softens his stance on the future of Europe enough to be approved by the EPP, then that leaves S&D the Commission’s first VP. A strengthening current of opinion among the EU’s biggest political family is that the High Representative for Foreign Affairs position is a good alternative, under the likely circumstances in place after the EU 2019 elections. In this case, Grybauskaitė’s hopes may turn in this direction instead (holding an advantage over other possible contenders as Alexander Stubb also through her “woman card”).

Germany and France to compete for the leadership of the ECB

The European Affairs community believes that Germany and France will try to get the Presidency of the ECB for themselves, rather than supporting potential candidates from smaller countries. More than 40% of respondents think that a German will become the next ECB President, while more than 30% would rather bet on the victory of a potential French candidate.

Being chosen by 33% of respondents, German Jens Weidmann is currently regarded as the favorite to replace Mario Draghi in 2019. With Portuguese Mario Centeno taking over the Eurogroup Presidency and Spanish Luis de Guindos becoming the new Vice-President of the ECB (both coming from Southern and dovish – in terms of monetary and fiscal policy – countries), many analysts are expecting a candidate from a Northern hawkish country to succeed Italian Mario Draghi in 2019. However, Southern Member States might still want to prevent such a tough candidate to take over the institution and throw their weight behind an alternative name. According to the ‘EU Bubble’, the main competitor for Weidmann is likely to be French Christine Lagarde, who has already experience of leading an international financial institution.

While both Weidmann and Lagarde enjoy high mediatic exposure, they had previously adopted stances that irked some of the Member States. For instance, Weidmann has been an outspoken critic of Draghi’s quantitative easing and a staunch supporter of austerity policies, while Lagarde also took controversial stances by criticizing Germany excessive trade surplus and advocating for a haircut of Greek debt.

If Weidmann is deemed to be too controversial, another German could be ready to get the job, namely Klaus Regling (Managing Director of the European Stability Mechanism). France is not short of options either, as current member of the ECB board François Villeroy de Galhau, or perhaps even Sylvie Goulard (former MEP and key ally of Macron within the Bank of France) could also be considered for the post.

While most EU practitioners expect either France or Germany to be able to seize the leadership of the powerful Frankfurt-based institution,a minority of respondents see candidates from smaller countries as the potential front-runner in the race. In fact, some of them could fit the role of compromise candidates. Both Dutch Klaas Knot (8%) and Irish Philip Lane (8%) are seen as viable options, while the potential Estonian and Finnish candidates would also have a (smaller) chance of succeeding Draghi.

Are Germans too powerful? Survey responses highlight stark geographical and professional divisions 

Following the controversial promotion of Martin Selmayr to Secretary General of the European Commission, as well as Udo Bullmann’s election as the chair of the S&D group, discussions about whether Germans exert too much power at the EU level are heard in all offices (and restaurants around the institutions). What do EU practitioners think about the subject?

Respondents to our survey are almost evenly divided on the subject, with 50% arguing that Germans hold a fair amount of power at the EU level (also considering the big size of the country, the largest in the EU), while 47% are convinced that German influence is indeed over-represented at the EU level. Only a few respondents think that Germans hold too little power at the EU level. Notably, when excluding the German respondents, the view that “Germans are too powerful at the EU level” becomes majoritarian among the respondents from the remaining countries.

Not surprisingly, we observed strong correlations between the country of origin of the respondents and their views on German power. About 70% of respondents from Southern countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Greece) think that Germans are too powerful, while only 30% of respondents from Germany and Benelux countries agree with this statement.

Interestingly, the views are different also depending on the type of workplace: the view is mostly spread among the EU civil servants, as 52% of the respondents coming from his segment consider that “Germans hold too much power“. The NGOs workers come second,  49% of them sharing this perception, and the national civil servants (mostly PermReps) come third (among them, 47% of them share this view). This opinion gets less traction among the academia (43%), the private sector (40%) and the media (38%).

The relative popularity of this view among the EU and national civil servants may also partly explain the tendency of other countries to attempt “balancing coalitions” on more technical issues (where the political influence somewhat dissipates): our previous research on voting in the Council revealed that Germany is the second most outvoted state in the Council of Ministers (second only to the UK and sharing this spot with Austria), while France very rarely loses votes.

This question drew a lot of excitement from the surveyed EU experts, who decided to send us comments with their views on Selmayr’s appointment. Some respondents suggested that a similar question should be asked regarding French over-representation at the EU level (which we promise to add at our next update), while others pointed out that several other countries are over-represented, with a person suggesting that Denmark is also too powerful given its size (when referring to the fact that the Secretary General of the Council is Danish).

How will S&D perform in 2019? EU ‘bubblers’ do not foresee a bright future for this group 

In addition to the questions related to the reallocation of the top EU posts, we also asked our respondents for their expectations on how the Socialist and Democrats will fare in the upcoming European elections. The current equilibrium of powers among the political forces in the European Parliament is going to be reshuffled in 2019, due to 1) Brexit, with the departure of British MEPs and the weakening of the groups that most rely on them and 2) the surge of new political movements which is accelerating the decline of traditional parties across Europe.

While the S&D was the largest group in the EP until 1999, the group has remained the second largest since then. Over time, S&D has established a policy of cooperation with their main counterpart from the centre-right wing of the political spectrum, the EPP, as the two groups can outvote all the smaller groups combined. Currently, although the former leader of the S&D group, Italian Gianni Pittella, decided to stop the cooperation with the EPP in order to re-brand the group as a progressive alternative to the EPP’s dominance of EU politics, the two groups still have the numbers to push through compromise solutions in order to break deadlocks on EU legislation. This is highly likely to change in 2019 because of the decreasing support for these two mainstream political families. As things stand now, the EPP+S&D combination will get way under 50% of seats next year.

46% of respondents expect that S&D will keep its position as the second largest group in the EP. After all, S&D group is made up of MEPs from all Member States and Social Democratic parties are likely to remain the largest forces in countries such as Romania, Portugal, Slovakia, Denmark, Sweden or Malta.

However, more than half of the respondents expect S&D to become the third, or even the fourth, largest group in the European Parliament in 2019. While, according to the current polls in the member states, S&D is set to retain the second place, there seems to be widespread scepticism over a positive performance of this political family in 2019, also given the recent disappointing electoral results in Italy.

The strength of the group could be further harmed by the potential reshuffle of the centre-ground of the political spectrum spurred by the new movement by Macron, as well as potential changes in the political affiliations of other national parties. Some of the new groups will try to take some of current S&D members on board, which would further diminish the S&D’s likelihood to remain a top player in the next term.

What will the 5 Star Movement do? Our respondents do not expect it to moderate their positions on the EU

While a lot of attention is being paid to Macron’s European affiliation, the future direction of the Italian 5 Star Movement seems to draw less interest, although the party is also likely to get a high number of seats in 2019, as the biggest political force in Italy. Next year, the movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo will try to repeat its extraordinary performance in the recent Italian election (32% of votes), which would translate in a big number of seats. As the EFDD group is likely to collapse following the departure of the British UKIP MEPs, the 5 Star MEPs will consider moving somewhere else. Still, a plurality of respondents (36%) do not think they will go far away from where they stand now, as they expect the 5 Star to join another Eurosceptic group.At the same time, 26% think that 5 Star would rather try to found a brand new group closer to their views of direct digital democracy than joining one of existing groups (this is the top option among the Italian respondents). While the size of the 5 Star delegation might be big enough to ensure the group’s own existence (in terms of minimum number of MEPs required), it is not clear to what extent this potential new group could have a substantial impact on EU decision making (this will also define the attractiveness of the group to potential members from the other political groups).

Only 13% are willing to bet on the rumored potential alliance between Macron and the 5 Star. As the movement tries to take the leadership of the next Italian government, it is moderating its critical views on the EU in order to increase its appeal to the centre-ground of the political spectrum. Policy differences could come in the way of a deal with Macron though, as 5 Star voting patterns suggest that they are actually closer to the far left and the Greens rather than the liberal centre.

Importantly, we should keep in mind that the 5 Star previously tried to join ALDE (only to be rejected by ALDE’s party members), showing that the Italian party is pretty flexible when it comes to its European affiliation. Apart from its clear effects on the political composition of the European Parliament, the future affiliation of the 5 Star Movement is likely to have an impact on the Italian influence at the European level, as the party is now the largest in one of EU’s biggest states. A decision of the 5 Star to remain on the fringes would decrease the clout of the Italian delegation in the EP, in the same way as the isolation of UKIP and the National Front in Strasbourg played against the UK’s and French influence, respectively, during the current term.