Guy Verhofstadt - CC / Flickr
Guy Verhofstadt - CC / Flickr

Before the EP elections I wrote a post expressing my exasperation at the PES when they stated they had a nominee for Commission President but would not state the name of that individual. Now Euractiv is reporting that there could be an alliance of the PES, Greens and ALDE to push the nomination of former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt as an alternative to Barroso (Stephen Spillane has more).

Don’t get me wrong – I think Barroso is rubbish, and I would be very happy to see Verhofstadt as President of the Commission instead. But how would you possibly explain that to European voters? Press coverage was correct that the left was defeated in the EP elections, and then the right might not manage to get its candidate elected? It would look mighty odd, especially as it might well be Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy that could signal the end of Barroso, rather that it being someone like Brown or Zapatero.

We’ve also been down this road before – in 1995 when John Major refused to back Verhofstadt Jean Luc Dehaene and the Commission ended up with Jacques Santer instead, and Verhofstadt himself was also rumoured to be a candidate in 2004. Would there be any prospect of the UK backing him now?

All this is on the basis of rumours for the moment, but the coming weeks could be quite intriguing.

10 Comments

  1. James Burnside

    Jon, re Verhofstadt… precisely. Whilst it’s not so difficult to put together a majority against Barroso, it’d be much harder for the PES/ALDE to build a majority for anybody. So unless they get tacit support from inside the EPP (hence a different EPP candidate getting the nod in the end) it probably won’t get off the drawing board.

    If there is serious effort being put in to build an anti-Barroso campaign, to the extent that he risks being voted down, surely he would withdraw his candidacy rather than suffer the humiliation? And that’s the case for any realistic prospect. Who’s going to allow their name to be voted on if there’s a serious chance they could lose?

    On your other point, eurosceptics will surely come up with hostile stories on whoever is nominated. Whilst I take your point that appearing to deny the voters their preferred outcome can be attacked as “anti-democratic” in the same way as re-running the Irish referendum has been, I think it’s a harder argument on which to gain traction.

  2. I agree that Barroso would be better off withdrawing his candidacy if he is not going to be returned… but at the moment he is better off being up front – he’s supposed to be the EPP’s candidate, and yet some governments have been a bit luke warm towards him. So the public “I’m the EPP candidate, and the EPP did well in the elections” line is the best way to apply pressure to potentially reticent leaders.

    As for hostility – if the EPP came up with an alternative to Barroso that would probably be the least easy for eurosceptics to criticise – EPP the biggest after the elections, and Barroso (who presided over the Commission during a period with 3 referendum defeats) removed. But it would indeed not be the easiest one for eurosceptics to whine about – whatever happens.

  3. James Burnside

    How many voters made their choice on the basis of who they wanted to see as head of the Commission? The Barroso family, then who else? Whoever gets the job in the end, especially if it’s not settled until the autumn, I can’t see many voters connecting it with the EP elections. And if the appointment is made under Nice rules, there is no formal requirement to pay any attention to the election results. All that’s needed is a simple majority to support the candidate in the EP.

    If a majority can be put together in the EP to reject Barroso, then the most likely outcome is not a Verhofstadt but a more U candidate from the EPP. The, in some places, grudging acceptance of Barroso from governments of his own colour doesn’t suggest they’d fight hard to keep him. Possibly the biggest reason for them doing so is simply to ensure the EP doesn’t gain the upper hand.

    Remember, again, that Commission president is one of a package of jobs. The European Council has been happy to have somebody relatively pliant in the post since Santer. Is that going to continue? Will they hand over the illusion of power in choosing the post to the EP, but at the same time effectively downgrade it so that it’s second fiddle to the European Council President? Who’d want the job on those terms?

  4. @James – which all adds up to the conclusion that it won’t be Verhofstadt…

    Seriously though, while individual voters themselves might not see this, eurosceptics (and hence the press) could have a field day with this if they wanted to.

  5. Kieran

    This is an interesting development. Clearly there is an anto-Barosso force. Exactly how strong it is remains to be seen. But my two cents is that Guy Verhofstadt would have been a stronger Commision president if he appointed/elected in 2004 instead of Barosso.

  6. I agree Jo that it looks rather strange… but here I am completely divided between my positions as an individual, and what parties should responsibly advocate. I would personally be super happy to see Verhofstadt as Commission President – precisely because he stands for many of the things I stand for. But were I a EPP politician or someone who voted for the centre-right I would be angry, as such a choice would not respect the results of the EP elections…

  7. Have I understood this right?
    It feels like a kind of bad joke – look guys, you know that the europhiles keep telling you that Verhofstadt is not representative of mainstream European thought these days in his need-a-European-army-harmonise-everything approach and a Superstate’s off the agenda?
    And you voted largely Centre Right (and in the UK for eurosceptical parties)?
    Well guess who we’re putting up for Commission President!
    I share your analysis that the powerful centre right governments would be unlikely to wear this and it’d be very hard to explain to the general public. Particularly in the UK where we just don’t do coalition politics (unless you’re in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland of course!)

  8. Thomas Leys

    Please note that in 1995, it was not Guy Verhofstadt who was vetoed by the UK, but Jean-Luc Dehaene, who was at the time Prime Minister of Belgium and is currently an MEP as well.

  9. It really all depends whether the PSE favours an alliance with the EPP or ALDE. I’d bet that it will be the EPP as in the long-term a “coalition” with ALDE and the Greens could be much more risky for the PES.

    But interesting discussions indeed.

  10. @Thomas – yes, sorry, I’m cracking up. Article now corrected!

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