Emmanuel Macron embarrassed by Marine Le Pen in elections but emerges as EU kingmaker

James Crisp
Emmanuel Macron could be the kingmaker in the EU - POOL AFP

Emmanuel Macron suffered defeat at home in the European elections but could console himself with securing a kingmaker role that could determine the next five years of EU politics.

The ardently Europhile French president was narrowly beaten by Marine Le Pen’s virulently anti-EU National Rally in the French vote but stands to benefit from a fragmentation in support for the older centrist parties in the European Parliament.

Ever since the first European elections in 1979, the centre-right European People’s Party and centre-left Socialists and Democrats have dominated EU politics. They operated, formally and informally, a grand coalition, sewing up the EU’s top jobs and gaming the approval of Brussels’ rules and regulations as they pass through the European Parliament, which has an influential say over draft legislation from the European Commission.

For the first time in 40 years, it emerged on Sunday night, the EPP and S&D, the two largest, would be unable to form a joint majority of at least 378 MEPs in the 751-seat parliament. That majority is needed to both pass EU law and appoint the leadership of the next European Commission.

The traditional centrist parties bled support to a record number of Eurosceptic MEPs and a “green wave” that saw Greens do well in some EU countries. National parties form themselves in like-minded pan-EU political alliances to qualify for increased speaking time, influence and EU funding.

Mr Macron had characterised the May 23-26 EU-wide vote as a fight for the future of Europe between pro-EU parties and the Eurosceptic populists. While his defeat to Mrs Le Pen was embarrassing, Mr Macron’s new Renaissance party is set to form a political alliance with the European liberals, led by the federalist Guy Verhofstadt.

Overnight the new pan-EU group was on course for an estimated 108 seats, making it the third largest alliance in the parliament and effectively in possession to keys of power in Brussels. Speaking in Brussels, Mr Verhofstadt made clear that the new group would only offer its support to the wounded establishment if the parties backed ambitious, integrationist policies. The Telegraph understands the liberals will demand commitments to a five-year plan that is likely to reflect Mr Macon’s desire for closer political integration between EU countries and more power for Brussels.

The results will also hand Mr Macron an even larger sway in the distribution of the top jobs in the EU institutions and, in particular, the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor as European Commission president.

The European elections are meant to pick Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor as commission president. Under the Spitzenkandidat system, first introduced in 2014, political groups nominate a lead candidate, with the winning group taking the post. But EU governments, led by Mr Macron, are moving to reassert their right to pick the head of the EU’s civil service.

Although the EPP remains the largest group, it has lost the clear majority it enjoyed in 2014. That weakens Manfred Weber, the EPP Spitzenkandidat’s, claim to the job, despite the fact he enjoys the public support of Angela Merkel. Mr Macron has signalled that he does not support the system or Mr Weber, who lacks governmental experience and does not speak French.

With the European Parliament intent on preserving the system, the scene is set for an inter-institutional turf war that could paralyse Brussels if MEPs refuse to back any new president who is not a Spitzenkandidat.

Mr Weber, A German MEP from the  Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel, understood that his hopes of becoming commission president had taken a blow. But he insisted he was the man for the job because the EPP was the largest group, even if it had lost 43 MEPs. He called on the socialists, greens and liberals to band together behind his banner.

Even if Mr Macron was to swing in behind Mr Weber, which appears unlikely, the president is certain to demand a share of the most influential posts in the European Commission and the other EU institutions in return.

That does not bode well for the next British prime minister’s hopes of renegotiating the Brexit deal. The EU has repeatedly ruled out renegotiating the withdrawal agreement, while Mr Macron, supported by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, argued strongly against a long Brexit extension at last month’s EU summit.

The French president, who has led the hawkish contingent among EU-27 leaders on Brexit, has already said the extension to Halloween should be the last. The new commission will not take power before October 31 but Mr Macron’s status and influence in the EU has been bolstered, rather than diminished, by these elections, despite his defeat.

With the Brexit Party set to top the British vote and the prospects of a prime minister Boris Johnson in the ascendant into view, the number of Mr Macron’s hawks, and the chances of a no deal Brexit, could swell.