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Can von der Leyen muster majority backing of European Parliament?

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Lorem Copyright Christian CREUTZ/ European Union 2019 - Source : EP
Copyright Christian CREUTZ/ European Union 2019 - Source : EP
By Gerardo Fortuna
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Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen's reappointment by the European Council proceeded as smoothly as expected, with the attention now turning to the European Parliament, where she must secure the necessary votes to seal a new mandate.

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Before the EU elections, it was expected that EU leaders might resist Ursula von der Leyen's reappointment more than the European Parliament, which was expected to fall in line following a summit of leaders signing off on it.

The tables have turned, however, and while the European Council has reached its top jobs decision, the parliamentary arithmetic continues to pose open questions.

The strong performance of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the socialists, the leading forces in the European Council with 17 out of 27 leaders, provided significant leverage for their negotiators ahead of the decisive EU summit on 27-28 June.

But poor performance by the liberals - which bolstered von der Leyen's alliance in the last mandate - and the greens shifted the count back in the Parliament.

“The European Parliament is much more of a minefield than the European Council, where von der Leyen's EPP prevails,” said an EU diplomat.

Von der Leyen needs a majority of 361 votes in Strasbourg - one more than half the total of 720 MEPs in the chamber - but this support must come in a secret ballot – the biggest challenge to assessing support since it makes lawmakers less accountable, eroding party discipline.

“According to Berlaymont estimates, von der Leyen needs 40 to 50 additional votes because, at the moment, her teams count on a majority of 399 MEPs but they expect 15% of ‘mavericks’ [lawmakers voting differently from their parties],” the diplomat continued.

In 2019, the alliance of Christian democrats, liberals, and socialists had 444 seats, and von der Leyen was appointed with 383 votes, only nine votes above the then-required threshold. Support back then came from 14 MEPs from Italy’s Five Star Movement, 27 from Polish Law and Justice (PiS), and even 13 lawmakers from Orbán’s Fidesz.

During that appointment process, von der Leyen was a compromise candidate, whereas this time around she's the Spitzenkandidat, the leading candidate of the EPP, seeking votes in a polarised Parliament in an atmosphere where heated pre-election debate has made coalition-building trickier.

EU diplomats suggest that parties from the founding member states in the big groups seem to support the leaders' deal, with a few exceptions like Les Républicains, the French EPP affiliate, which has openly stated it won’t vote for von der Leyen. In the socialist camp, some Danish EPP members are reportedly at odds with their prime minister Mette Frederiksen and may decide not to back the deal she will greenlight.

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Given these factors, it seems reasonable to assume on a secret ballot that as many as 15% of the majority MEPs may prove ‘maverick’.

So which other MEPs may come to the rescue beyond the broad alliance parties? 

First, there are the Greens, who with 54 MEPs are now open to joining a majority backing von der Leyen, unlike last time when they voted against her.

“We’re not that expensive,” a Green source told Euronews, indicating that while they have clear red lines for negotiating, they will engage in talks constructively due to their reduced size. The 12 German Green MEPs might back von der Leyen regardless of the group's stance, however, since they are part of the German government that supports her in the Council.

A coalition with the conservatives of ECR is off the table, and would be strongly opposed by socialist group leader Iratxe Garcia, she signalled in a meeting with von der Leyen on Wednesday (June 26).

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However, individual ECR members, particularly MEPs from conservative-led countries like Czech PM Petr Fiala (who has 4 MEPs), might support her - particularly if he backs the Council's deal today.

Crucial support could come from Italy’s premier Giorgia Meloni, however, who could tip the balance with her 24 MEPs from Brothers of Italy.

Meloni was considered to have earned the role of ‘kingmaker’ at the Council but was eventually closed out of the discussions over the EU top jobs, to her chagrin. After Meloni complained about the process and said she was thinking of abstaining over the appointments, the EPP's head Manfred Weber called for Rome to be involved in the decision-making process.

Meloni's objection was not to the names proffered per se so much as the selection process, and she may well be brought around with the offer to Italy of a significant portfolio in the next EU executive.

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Among the non-attached MEPs, support from Germany’s populist left Sarah Wagenknecht Movement (6 MEPs) and Italy’s Five Star Movement (8 MEPs) is unlikely unless they join a political group backing von der Leyen. Slovak Smer, temporarily non-attached due to suspension by the socialist group (S&D), might support her if reintegrated in exchange for their six MEPs' backing, as reported by some media.

The Left and the far-right group (ID) are out of the majority game, but there is still uncertainty about Orbán’s Fidesz (10 MEPs), known for surprising moves. Additionally, 20 MEPs from PiS might decide to back her last minute as they might leave their current conservative home and follow Orbán in a new group continuing at the Parliament the previous experience of cooperation among Eastern European countries known as the Visegrád group (V4).

There’s also a group of 42 newly elected members not yet allied with any political groups. This group could slim down by the July 4 deadline for presenting the groups' affiliations, but some individual support may still emerge from within this cohort.

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