With the European elections of May 2019 only six months away, most European parties are announcing their Spitzenkandidaten and campaign programs. European Liberals, however, announced something bigger.
During their party congress in Madrid, liberal leaders announced plans to build a new liberal alliance. At the core of this new alliance are French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Together, they hope to break the conservatives’ grip on European politics who currently hold all three presidencies of the EU’s main institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council.
Despite joining forces, liberal leaders also announced to nominate not just one candidate but a Spitzenkandidaten team with up to nine candidates, hoping it will help them achieve better results in the EU elections. The following names are circulated as possible candidates: the EU’s Danish Commission for Competition Margrethe Vestager, the ALDE group leader in the EP and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and the EU’s Czech Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová. The final team of candidates will be announced in February.
However, polls suggest that LREM together with ALDE would currently win 92 seats of the total 705 in the European Parliament, lagging well behind the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists (S&D).
Despite the forecast for the Parliament, the coalition would have nine liberal leaders in the European Council, just like the conservatives, with Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as the most prominent elected leaders among them. It is the European Council who nominates the next Commission President, taking into account the Parliament’s new composition resulting from the elections. Then, the nominee needs to be approved by a majority in the Parliament. As the European Council opposed the Spitzenkandidaten process, the Liberals hope that presenting a Spitzenkandidaten team will offer the European Council more discretion, making it more likely that one of their candidates will be chosen.
Whether this strategy works out remains to be seen. The EPP’s candidate Manfred Weber is considered to have good chances, with the EPP being the biggest group in the Parliament.
Besides the empowering atmosphere at the conference and a speech by Astrid Panosyan, co-founder of LREM, that was widely perceived as being impressive, some differences still remain. As Morten Løkkegaard, a Danish Member of European Parliament, pointed out, ALDE delegates insist on the French accepting the term liberal. In France the term “liberal” is interpreted as being free-market conservative, leading to their hesitation to embrace the label at European level. Furthermore, Macron’s camp is open for the alliance to include former socialist and green parties, causing some senior Liberals to worry that the umbrella might become too big.
It remains unclear whether other parties are actually willing to join forces and if the Liberals among themselves can agree on whom to welcome in their ranks.