EU institutions ‘cool off’ for recess as fiery debates loom

Leadership roles, balance of power, Brexit and refugees to dominate autumn agenda

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness is one of 12 vice-presidents of the European Union. Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness is one of 12 vice-presidents of the European Union. Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

The European Commission held its final meeting of commissioners before the summer break yesterday, as the EU prepared for its annual August wind-down.

Down the street, at the European Parliament, MEPs had mostly left town for the summer recess, with the next substantial business scheduled for August 29th when committee meetings recommence.

Similarly, at the European Council building across from the commission headquarters, where ministers regularly gather, the schedule is empty until September.

It has been a tumultuous few months for the European Union. The migration crisis and resurgent security threats across Europe were overshadowed in June by the British referendum result. 

Many in Brussels believe a “cooling-off” period over August is welcome; by then a clearer picture of British demands and a procedural decision on how to navigate the pre-Article 50 discussions – which will define the terms of the British withdrawal from the EU – may have emerged.   

The relationship between the three main EU institutions in Brussels is also likely to re-surface in the autumn.

Two and a half years since the European elections of May 2014, and the re-configuration of the EU’s top jobs that accompanied them, the power dynamics at the very top of the EU are again in focus.

Though President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker was elected for a five-year term in 2014, the heads of the parliament and council must be reappointed by January next year if they are to remain in their roles.

Council president Donald Tusk’s position seems safe, as only the second permanent head of the council, a position that was created by the Lisbon Treaty.

His predecessor, Herman Van Rompuy, was re-appointed without controversy in 2012.  

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Domestic troubles in Warsaw, where some members of the ruling Law and Justice party still suspect Tusk of involvement in the 2010 Smolensk air crash – in which then president Lech Kaczynski was killed – are unlikely to spill on to the European arena.

But for President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, the situation is more complex.

Some MEPs are calling for an election when Schulz’s term is up, citing a powersharing deal between the two main groups in the parliament in 2014.

Schulz wants to remain or, alternatively, to secure a senior position within his SPD party in Germany – a move that looks unlikely.

The parliament president’s close personal relationship with Juncker – epitomised in a recent joint interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, in which Juncker revealed how the two often share early morning phone calls – is widely seen as a mutually-beneficial strategy. 

Juncker has said, on the record, that he wants Schulz to remain. Schulz, in turn, needs the support of the parliament to survive, particularly in the wake of recent criticism of his leadership from the German media. 

If Schulz goes, Juncker would most likely follow.

Schulz, a socialist, would be replaced by a candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), a move that would destabilise the delicate ideological balance between the three main EU institutions, which sees two former EPP prime ministers heading up the commission and council.

A centre-right European Parliament president would mean that either Juncker or Tusk would need to be replaced by a centre-left candidate, with Juncker’s second-in-command Frans Timmermans an obvious replacement candidate.

All of this is good news for Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, who is being considered in official circles as a possible EPP successor to Martin Schulz.

As one of 12 vice-presidents of the European Parliament, the Fine Gael MEP regularly stands in for the parliament president during debates, and is regarded as a serious politician who can bridge the party-political divide.

Other EPP names in the frame include French MEP Alain Lamassoure, former Italian EU commissioner Antonio Tajani and possibly the EPP leader, German MEP Manfred Weber.

Indeed, securing the support of the powerful German contingent of the EPP will be crucial for any candidate. But while the personalities and politics of the EU are likely to dominate the autumn agenda, there are also questions about the balance of power.

Some member states are unhappy at what is perceived to have been the over-reach of the commission into national competencies.

Its refugee relocation scheme was, for some, a courageous and morally-just move.

For others, it was imposed on east European member states against their will. “These are issues that can bring down a government, “ said one EU ambassador. “The commission does not understand this.”

Slovakia’s prime minister Robert Fico has hinted the commission’s role may be discussed at the Bratislava summit in September.

In the longer-term, the relationship between the EU’s institutions is likely to be a key point of debate as the EU ponders Brexit.

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