Gianni Pittella, the leader of the European Socialists in the European Parliament, announced the end of the Grand Coalition between EPP, S&D and ALDE. The election of Antonio Tajani as the new President of the European Parliament showed it, as it effectively shredded the power-sharing agreement signed by Martin Schulz, Manfred Weber and Guy Verhofstadt in 2014, where the three groups had promised to support each other in electing the S&D candidate as President of the Parliament from 2014 to 2017, then the EPP candidate from 2017 to 2019 and giving ALDE a bigger share of vice-presidencies than their share of MEPs would predict. In fact all three happened, but now the EPP candidate got elected with the votes of the three main right-leaning groups: EPP, ALDE and ECR.
But, unless things change on how politics is done on the European level, the grand coalition is not over, and it can’t be. And it can’t, simply because it’s designed to exist and there would be the need for a major reform to change that, or at least a big political will.
There are four main political institutions in the European Union. The European Parliament is directly elected by the citizens and thus represents all ideologies, from the most radical far-left to Greek and German neo-Nazis. On the other side, the Council system, composed by the European Council and the Council of Ministers (officially the Council of the European Union) have their composition directly linked to the national governments, making it mostly composed by center-left and center-right politicians. The European Commission, while it has to pass the vote of the plural European Parliament, has its members nominated by the intergovernmental European Council, thus is mostly composed by center-left and center-right politicians.
With this institutional design, the European Parliament is the only institution where currently a coalition other than a grand coalition can exist, but all the legislation approved in the Parliament needs the approval of the Council of Ministers thus needing the approval of the grand coalition parties anyway.
But the Treaties do leave some space to end the grand coalition on the European level, but a high degree of political will would be needed, both by the EPP that would need to effectively assume the leadership of the Union and by the Socialists that would need to assume the opposition role in the Union.
The election of the President of the European Commission is, since 2014, a direct result of the European elections, due to the changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty and the pressure of the European Parliament for the democratization of the EU. Jean-Claude Juncker was elected as President of the Commission after he led his EPP in the 2014 elections and it became the biggest group in the European Parliament. His Commission was then approved by the Parliament with the favorable votes of EPP, S&D and ALDE and the abstention of ECR.
This process could become even more democratic with the end of the grand coalition. Instead of the candidate of the biggest party in the elections becoming automatically President, the elected MEPs could have the chance to build a coherent ideological majority. This is how parliaments usually work and it’s how the current heads of government of countries like Portugal and Luxembourg – leaders of the 2nd and 3rd biggest parties, respectively – got elected to their posts. But for this to happen the European Council would have to take their power to appoint the President of the European Commission as a mere formality, as it happens to Presidents, Kings and Queens all over Europe.
Another issue that makes it impossible for the grand coalition to simply stop existing is the way the Commissioners are chosen. Unlike national governments, where the head of government can freely choose who his/her ministers are, the President of the European Commission has to take the choices of the European Council. This means that there are 27 Commissioners each decided by each national leader, according to their own political preferences. As there will always be national governments of both the left and the right, this means that the Commission will always be a grand coalition.
But again, political will could change that. The Treaties already allow the number of Commissioners to be less than 28 (27+President), breaking the parity between number of states and number of Commissioners. But even with 27, the national leaders could allow the Commission President to choose at his/her free will the person of that country the he/she wants as Commissioner. This would mean that there could be a Luxembourgish Commissioner member of the EPP nominated by a Liberal Prime-Minister and in coalition with Socialists and Greens – exactly what happened in 2014 when Juncker was nominated while his successor in the Luxembourgish government was Xavier Bettel.
Let’s also remember that the nomination of a 5 year-term Commissioner by a national leader that just happens to be in office at that specific point in time makes little sense. Right now there are Commissioners that still have in their national governments the person who nominated them while others have someone from a different party. This should make no difference as Commissioners are not supposed to be influenced by the national governments, but if that influence is not supposed to happen, then the way they are nominated is a bad start. The 2014 nomination process also showed another example of how bad the process was: Alenka Bratušek was the outgoing Prime-Minister and nominated herself as Commissioner-candidate, only to be refused by the European Parliament.
The politization of Europe
This EPP-ALDE coalition, supported by the ECR, marks nonetheless an important politicization of the EU (or, for now, of the European Parliament), and leaves it clear who leads the continent. Not only the 3 groups have a working majority in the Parliament, but they also lead 17 of the 28 states in the European Council, are present in all but 6 national governments (and thus a big probability of having a majority in all configurations of the Council of the European Union), have a majority of Commissioners (19 of the 27) and have the three presidents of the European institutions: the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.
For a political Europe to totally emerge – a precondition for a fully democratic union – there are two necessary moments: that the consensus politics is broken and that the resulting political conflict reflects the policy conflict (in a left-right and libertarian-authoritarian axis, but not in a pro-EU vs anti-EU axis). The EPP-ALDE coalition allows for the first, yet the letter of the agreement attempts to stop the second by claiming it is essentially a “pro-European coalition” instead of an ideological coalition. This is a very easily rebutted argument: not only the agreement was built to fight against the S&D candidate, that comes from a pro-European group and is a pro-European himself, but it has the support of the eurosceptic ECR which is composed by the Brexit Tories and the destructor of Polish democracy PiS in order to elect a member of Forza Italia, one of the most eurosceptic mainstream parties together with Fidesz. And not to talk about how difficult it is to understand a deal as pro-European when it was negotiated by the same person that in the same week negotiated a political deal with M5S, the anti-euro eurosceptic party of Beppe Grillo.
A Socialist opposition for Europe
While the grand coalition is here to stay, the European Socialists can still take some steps to go further into their opposition role:the Presidency of the European Council is a 2,5 year term and the next election is this year. According to what we know from the non-written part of the EPP-ALDE agreement, both parties will support a second term for Donald Tusk in a move that would need support from the Conservatives as the new Polish government is no longer composed by Tusk’s party. The European Socialists are now the biggest political group in the European Council, in parity with the EPP, and can push for a Socialist leader of the European Council, something that never happened since the post was created in 2009. Or they could propose that the post be filled by the President of the European Commission as the Treaties already leaves as a possibility. the Socialists have 8 Commissioners in the Juncker Commission including Vice-President Frans Timmermans and High Representative Federica Mogherini. For a Socialist opposition to be credible the Socialist Commissioners could resign and the Socialist national leaders could give Juncker the possibility to choose new Commissioners at his free will.