1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Liberals aim to influence EU election debate from the center

April 1, 2024

European liberals and centrists have put together their team for the election campaign. Their performance could be decisive when it comes to appointing the Commission president.

Brüssel EU-Parlament Renew-Gruppe
The team: Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, Valerie Hayer and Sandro Gozi (4th, 5th and 6th from left) at the campaign launch in Brussels on March 20, 2024Image: CC BY-NC-ND © ALDE Party

At the last European election in 2019, the liberal Renew Europe group turned out to be the kingmaker — or rather, the queenmaker. Together with the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right European People's Party (EPP), they elevated Ursula von der Leyen to the post of European Commission President.

When they kicked off their election campaign in Brussels in mid-March this year, Renew was still riding high.

"We managed to place our group, our family at the center of the game," said Valerie Hayer, member of the French Renaissance party and chair of Renew in the EU Parliament. Never before have the liberals wielded so much power, she added.

Renew is represented by six out of 27 figures both in the EU Commission and among the heads of state and government. Among them are French President Emmanuel Macron and the two Commission vice presidents: Margrethe Vestager and Vera Jourova. The current EU Council President Charles Michel is also a liberal.

Ursula von der Leyen at a podium
Whether EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gets a second term in office could depend on the liberal Renew faction Image: Kenzo Tribouillard/dpa/Pool AFP/AP/picture alliance

Seats at risk

Renew has 102 members in the EU Parliament, making it the third largest group after the European People's Party and the Social Democrats. Still, its strength could be threatened in the European elections at the beginning of June.

But trouble is brewing: Election aggregator Europe Elects predicts that Renew could lose almost a fifth of its seats and enter the EU Parliament with just 82 representaives. That would downgrade it to the fifth largest group, behind the right-wing populist Identity and Democracy group and the center-right European Conservatives and Reformists.

Nevertheless, they could once again be the deciding factor in whether German EPP candidate von der Leyen keeps her role as Commission President after the election.

Eric Maurice, researcher at the European Policy Center think tank, believes that Renew has not yet decided whether it will support her candidacy. In the run-up to von der Leyen's nomination by the European Council, the body on which the heads of state and government sit, the group could threaten to refuse, he said. The reason? Because von der Leyen relies too heavily on right-wing conservative parties.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (FDP) leads the list of German liberals and is part of Renew Europe's three-person team of candidates Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Trio to lead the election campaign

Renew's aim doesn't seem to be claiming the office for itself, however. The "liberals, centrists and democrats," as they call themselves, are sending a team of three instead of a single candidate to vie for the role of Commission President.

"We are not campaigning for top jobs here, we are campaigning for European people," said Hayer, who is one of the three candidates.

Additionally, the European liberal party family, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, is sending Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann into the race, though she is currently still in the German parliament for the neoliberal Free Democratic Party(FDP). Then there is Italian Sandro Gozi, who is running for the European Democrats (EDP). Together with Hayer, who is unaffiliated with any group, they form Team Europe, which will represent Renew in the EU election campaign.

A 'Eurofighter' for Brussels

In terms of content, the Liberals have established 10 priorities. Among other things, they want to increase Europe's defense capabilities, advocate for women's rights and the LGBTQ+ movement, and implement new regulations for digitalization and environmental protection.

In particular, they want to reform EU treaties to include more involvement by citizens. They are also calling for strengthening European values against the authoritarian tendencies that have emerged in some EU countries.

German candidate Strack-Zimmermann told DW that she would also like to continue to campaign for Ukraine from Europe. While defense is normally a matter for nation states, she sees a need for action at the European level.

Strack-Zimmermann, referred to as a "Eurofighter" in her campaign material, has made a name for herself in Germany as chairwoman of the Bundestag defense committee, with her fearsome demands for more arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (left) and Valerie Hayer (right)
Valerie Hayer (right) leads the list of French President Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance party in the European electionsImage: CC BY-NC-ND © ALDE Party

Distancing from the far right

Her French colleague is concerned with a different issue: "Let's be clear: there's no flirting, no ambiguity vis-a-vis extremism and populism. We want to shape the European Union from the political center," said Hayer, whose electoral list is currently polling in second place behind the right-wing populist Rassemblement National.

Political analyst Maurice expects the French Renaissance list to remain the largest delegation within the Renew group. Internally, however, the French leadership will likely be questioned. That's because it has been difficult to find a balance, particularly in economic policy, between the liberal and the centrist approach, the latter more shaped by the French.

Sandro Gozi, a politician who entered the EU Parliament in 2019 via the French Renaissance list, has also emphasized a need for distance from the far right. As the election campaign kicked off, he called on von der Leyen to focus less on the right-wing government in Rome: "The road to [Giorgia] Meloni and the road to the extreme right is a dead end and we don't want to end up there."

This article was originally written in German.

DW Mitarbeiterin Lucia Schulten
Lucia Schulten Brussels Correspondent