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Ursula’s choice and reshaping alliances ahead of June 2024

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With less than a year until next June’s European elections, much depends on the answer to one question: will Ursula von der Leyen seek a second term as European Commission president?

If, as expected, von der Leyen decides against pursuing the imminent vacancy as NATO secretary general and chooses to stay for a second term as Commission president, she will almost certainly command majority support across EU capitals.

The knock-on effect would be that there will not be a Spitzenkandidat campaign in any meaningful sense. The Socialists, Renew Europe, Greens, and Left groups will still go through the motions of picking a lead candidate, but their political heavyweights are unlikely to put their hats in the ring.

After EU leaders rejected the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber following the 2019 polls, a coronation for von der Leyen would leave the lead candidate concept in its death throes.

“We don’t want to be the ones who killed it,” a senior party group official told EURACTIV.

That would strike down any real ‘European’ element to the campaign, particularly since national governments have once again refused to countenance the introduction of a transnational list to elect a small number of MEPs.

A legislative proposal to reform the EU’s electoral law – which includes transnational lists and plans to lower the voting age to 16 – is almost certain to remain blocked by national ministers and collapse once the EU institutions close for the election campaign next spring.

Movement on migration

Von der Leyen’s support from national governments has been boosted by the conclusion in July of a EUR785 million agreement with Tunisia which will provide economic support for the North African state in exchange for greater action in preventing migration across the Mediterranean Sea.

At the last EU summit in Brussels before the summer recess, leaders endorsed the deal with President Kais Saied and gave their support for it being used as a blueprint for similar arrangements with neighbouring countries.

Egypt is likely to be the next on the Commission’s list, and a draft agreement with President Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s government is expected before the end of the year.

However, in an open letter to von der Leyen in July, a cross-party group of around 40 MEPs criticised the EU executive for failing to insist on measures to protect human rights in the Tunisia agreement and suspend the funds in case of human rights abuse.

Under President Saied’s regime, the democratic government in Tunisia – the last one standing from the Arab Spring – has been suspended and a series of opposition politicians and civil society activists arrested.

But opposing voices in the EU now represent a diminishing minority, indicating how attitudes towards migration have changed. Officials from the Socialist and Democrat and Renew Europe groups have said that most of their MEPs will support the pact with Tunisia.

Elsewhere, MEPs and ministers will seek to thrash out a final agreement on a series of legislative files on the bloc’s immigration and asylum regime.

Ministers agreed a common position on the burden-sharing of migrants in June, with a system of voluntary relocation for willing states and a levy of EUR20,000 for each migrant that a country says it cannot host.

Though the Polish government opposes this arrangement and is holding a referendum on it, the result is unlikely to make much difference. For their part, MEPs are likely to agree on a compromise on the migration files rather than let them collapse again at the end of the legislative mandate.

National polls

The upcoming general elections in Poland and the Netherlands will likely be closely watched across Europe for pointers ahead of next June.

In Poland, the ruling right-wing nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, a persistent thorn in the side of EU leaders on the rule of law, migration and climate change, has an opinion poll lead ahead of the 15 October vote.

But the opposition Civic Platform, led by former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk, has been gathering support and might deny PiS a third term.

More unpredictable is what will happen in the Netherlands in November, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte is standing down after over a decade in power.

Officials say that if Rutte’s liberal VVD party are unable to form a government with their current coalition partners, the Christian Union and D66, the Dutch farmers’ party, which topped the polls in municipal elections earlier this year, could form a coalition with the left/green alliance that will be headed by the European Commission’s climate chief Frans Timmermans.

Conservatives believe that they are on an upward curve.

In Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s New Democracy party decisively won a second term in April. Mitsotakis is one of EPP leader Manfred Weber’s closest allies, and his re-election was seen as a personal triumph for the EPP boss.

EPP officials are confident that they will remain the largest party group in the European Parliament after next June’s elections, maintaining a position they have held since 1999, though polling data suggests that they will lose a small number of seats and fall to between 160 and 170 seats in the next mandate.

However, the failure of the Spanish Partido Popular to make any more than tiny gains against the governing socialists in July – and not enough to form a coalition with the nationalist VOX party – was a major disappointment for the centre-right faction.

The inconclusive results in Spain, which left the PP as the largest party but with Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists better placed to form a coalition, could result in fresh elections before the end of 2023, potentially derailing Spain’s six-month presidency of the EU Council, which began in July.

Reshaping alliances

Polling data suggests that any significant gains will be made by the Eurosceptic European Conservative and Reformist group and the far-right Identity and Democracy group.

That has prompted much talk about re-shaping alliances, particularly on the right, with EPP leader Manfred Weber attempting to build close ties with nationalist Italian premier Giorgia Meloni.

Much has been made in the EU bubble about the EPP’s attempts before summer – though narrowly unsuccessful – to kill off the proposed Nature Restoration law.

However, an EPP/ECR coalition would still fall short of a majority in the next Parliament. It is far more likely that the grand coalition politics of the EPP, S&D and Renew will continue after 2024, though with variations in the different parliamentary committees.

One question that will be decided this autumn is the size of the European Parliament. MEPs want to expand the assembly to 744 seats, allocating an additional 11 seats based on population increases across the bloc and a further 28 to be used for a transnational list.

EU governments, however, have rejected the transnational list and are instead likely to reallocate a small number of the list seats to France, Belgium and Poland.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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