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Juncker and Schulz jockey for EU's top job

Is Martin Schulz just a sore loser? Can he really compete with Jean-Claude Juncker for the EU's top job as president of the EU Commission? Now that the EU election is over, speculation is rife in Brussels.

They are actually good friends on the European stage: Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz. The former prime minister of Luxembourg and the president of the EU Parliament have known each other for decades. “We have met in the dark back rooms where the decisions in Brussels are made,” said Juncker jokingly during the election campaign.

But, the harmony is now over because Martin Schulz is not giving up. He wants to become president of the EU Commission, although his Socialist and Social Democrat faction only came in second in the EU parliament election with 189 of 751 seats. Juncker and his fellow conservatives won 214 seats, so Juncker has the strongest parliamentary group behind him.

Where are the majorities?

To be clear: None of the two can make it on their own. A coalition is needed. They can only achieve a majority if the two biggest factions join together in a grand coalition.

All other constellations, a coalition with the Left, the Liberals or the Greens, would not be enough. Therefore, Juncker had some advice for his Socialist rival the day after the vote: “I have a very good relationship with Martin Schulz. So, I would advise him not to go on a journey which leads to nowhere.”

Daniel Gros (Foto: ceps.be)

The established parties need a quick agreement to steal populist thunder, says Gros

Schulz, on the other hand, argues that the conservatives lost nearly 60 seats, compared to the 2009 ballot, so as election losers they shouldn't be so pretentious.

On Monday (26.05.2014), Sergei Stanishev, party leader of the European Socialists, announced at a press conference that Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker would seek to cobble together their own majorities. “Now, we will begin negotiating with other political groups to create conditions for a stable, democratic majority in the EU Parliament,” he said.

Martin Schulz has the support of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), whose chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, said that the conservatives had to “make offers to the Socialists.”

German Chancellor Angelika Merkel, who heads a grand coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats in Berlin, officially supports the conservative candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, but without much passion.

“We will, of course, be going into the negotiations with Jean-Claude Juncker,” Merkel said. But whether Juncker emerges from the negotiations as the candidate is another matter.

After a meeting of EU parliamentary group chairmen, the EU's 28 heads of state and government will meet Tuesday (27.05.2014) to discuss the personnel package, which includes not just the top job of EU Commission president, but also the posts of EU Council president, EU foreign minister and chairman of the Eurogroup.

Established parties have to repel the populists

The Conservatives, Socialists, Liberals and Greens will have to work together if they want to find a solution for the different EU positions and provide a working parliament which is able to effectively pass legislation, says Daniel Gros, director of the “Center for European Policy Studies” think tank in Brussels.

“In order to get a majority, the two biggest - or perhaps the four mainstream - parties will have to do more horsetrading than usual in back room deals. That is unavoidable and might even reinforce the impression that the entire process is not democratic,” said Gros in an interview with DW.

This, he argues, is the only way to respond to the electoral gains of the radical and euro-skeptic parties in parliament. The rise of the National Front in France, UKIP in Britain and Denmark's Danish People's Party is a “disaster” for the respective countries, according to Gros. Their rise, however, is not that significant for the whole of the European Parliament, he says: "These were messages aimed at national governments, not European messages," he said.

David Cameron, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel (Foto: Kay Nietfeld/dpa)

British Prime Minster Cameron, French President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel are the relevant negotiators for a solution

Frontrunner Jean-Claude Juncker, who could become the next president of the EU Commission, does not see a dramatic change of course. France's economic policy won't change because of the National Front's electoral triumph.

"I don't think the French election result will influence the consolidation and growth policies we have defined over the years. The French government knows very well that the French budget has to be overhauled," said Juncker. Obviously, austerity measures, too, should not be exaggerated, so that the economy stalls, he added.

Daniel Gros from the “Center for European Policy Studies” does not expect that the right-wing or left-wing populists actually want to politically change things in the EU parliament. “Normally they don't care about details of a European legislative initiative like the banking union, for example. They want to score and be successful at home,” he said.

Two summits may be needed

In the election night, the chairman of the liberal faction of the EU Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, demanded from the two biggest factions and the heads of state and government to quickly come to an agreement. A lengthy process, in which neither Junker nor Schulz becomes president of the EU Commission, is harmful for democracy, he stressed..

"The election campaign wasn't just a game. That would be an impertinence to voters,” said Verhofstadt. On Tuesday, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the EU Council, has to consult with representatives of the parliament. Van Rompuy, who will retire in November, told DW three weeks ago: ”We might need two special summits in July and maybe September to reach a solution in autumn.”

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