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Mainstream parties block Euroskeptics from top Parliament posts

Mainstream, pro-EU political parties in the European Parliament moved aggressively to block Euroskeptic and extremist groups from claiming several prominent committee leadership posts on Wednesday.

That blocking effort enraged anti-establishment forces and potentially put at risk an overall deal on the EU’s future leadership.

One group leader, Ryszard Legutko of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), pointedly warned that his MEPs were less likely to support the deal on top jobs agreed by European leaders last week after one of their members — former Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło — was blocked from becoming chairwoman of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee.

Anti-establishment forces, including far-right and extremist groups, gained strength in the recent European election. The new Identity and Democracy (ID) group, a partnership between Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, is now the fifth-largest group with 73 MEPs — just two fewer than the Greens.

Together, ID and ECR have 135 MEPs, far more than the 108 seats controlled by the liberal-centrist Renew Europe, backed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

But pro-European forces overall control 519 seats and they wielded that muscle Wednesday to deny the insurgent groups several positions, effectively upending the so-called D’Hondt method by which leadership positions are traditionally apportioned among parliamentary groups.

ID had expected to hold the chair of the agriculture committee but its nominee, French MEP Maxette Pirbakas, was blocked by the four pro-EU parties. They instead elected Norbert Lins, a German MEP from the conservative European People’s Party. Pirbakas was then also rejected for two vice chair positions, before voting was suspended for the final spots.

In one of the most bitter stings for the far right, the pro-EU groups also voted down an ID candidate, French MEP Gilles Lebreton of National Rally, who had expected to be chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs.

Instead, a British liberal, Lucy Nethsingha, was elected to head the panel, which among other responsibilities maintains oversight of the limited parliamentary immunity enjoyed by MEPs. Nethsingha may be out of the Parliament come October 31 after Britain leaves the EU.

József Szájer, an MEP from Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party who chaired the initial vote in the legal affairs committee, had implored colleagues to respect the handshake agreement and the proportional formula.

“I would like to ask you, as the legal affairs committee, to observe the old traditions of the rule of law of our committees and elections, which is based on agreements by political groups,” Szájer said. “We have worked with those rules for 40 years, and if those agreements are not upheld, the consequences are unforeseeable.”

But the pro-EU MEPs were unmoved by the request from Szájer. Sylvie Guillaume, a French socialist, accused ID of having transparent motives in seeking to lead the legal affairs committee, known as JURI. “It fools no one that they chose the JURI committee, where parliamentary immunities are waived,” Guillaume said.

When Le Pen was an MEP in 2017, for example, Parliament voted to lift her immunity over pictures she tweeted of Islamic State violence.

While the blocking maneuvers essentially maintained the cordon sanitaire that pro-EU groups have used to limit the power of extremists and nationalists, the rising strength of the anti-establishment groups raises the possibility of a backlash.

Several MEPs, infuriated by the blocking effort, warned of just such reprisal in the months and years ahead.

The Euroskeptics and nationalists currently do not hold any vice presidency position in the Parliament, a remarkable absence from leadership given their overall numbers in the assembly. That means they still have no MEPs to chair plenary sittings nor any representation in the Parliament’s “bureau,” where the most important decisions on the workings of the Parliament are made.

One Euroskeptic in Parliament accused the pro-EU groups of hypocrisy, by claiming to be defenders of democracy while denying representation to minority parties.

“This is the only parliament in Europe that doesn’t give any minimal guarantee to minorities,” said a senior official from the ID group.

Pro-EU MEPs even moved quickly to disqualify candidates from the EU-critical Fidesz, which is led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and has been suspended from the EPP’s pan-European party organization, but not the parliamentary group.

The Committee on Civil Liberties failed to elect its full leadership after a center-left coalition blocked a Fidesz candidate for vice chair. Rather than allow the election of Hungarian MEP Balázs Hidvéghi, the pro-EU groups nominated Damien Carême, a French Greens member.

Fidesz was not entirely denied, however: Its MEP Tamás Deutsch won a vice chair position on the budgetary control committee.

The vote against Szydło, Poland’s former prime minister, prompted the fiercest response. After she was voted down, ECR leaders warned their MEPs were far less likely to support the overall cross-party deal on the EU’s future leadership including the nomination of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen for Commission president.

“We are incredibly disappointed with the behavior of some MEPs in the employment committee today,” said Legutko, the Polish leader of ECR. “At the European elections, Beata Szydło received the highest number of preference votes in Polish history and one of the highest of any individual across the whole EU. That MEPs in the Parliament’s employment committee would reject her candidacy as chair is an insult to her voters and hardly encourages us to support a cross-party consensus next week.”

Lili Bayer, Laurens Cerulus, Laura Kayali, John Rega and Eddy Wax contributed reporting. 

The next European Commission: What we know so far

The next European Commission is taking shape.

The current EU executive remains in office until the end of October but some governments have already announced their candidates for the next five-year term.

That doesn’t mean all of those nominees will end up at the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels. Every nominee will need the approval of the Commission’s new president and the European Parliament to take office.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Council’s nominee for Commission president, herself still needs to be confirmed by the European Parliament.

But the announcements so far give a good indication of who’s staying, who’s joining and who’s leaving.

Here’s what we know so far:

WHO’S STAYING 

Valdis Dombrovskis, Latvia, European People’s Party (EPP)
Current role: The European Commission’s vice president for the euro and social dialogue
Expected role in the new Commission: Latvia is hoping to get a portfolio connected to finance and the economy, according to one official.

Mariya Gabriel, Bulgaria, EPP
Current role: European commissioner for digital economy and society
Expected role in the new Commission: 
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has said that he turned down the post of high representative for foreign policy for his country and wants a “a commissioner with a real portfolio.” He also said he would be keen to keep the digital portfolio for Bulgaria.

Phil Hogan, Ireland, EPP
Current role: 
European commissioner for agriculture
Expected role in the new Commission: 
Hogan could stay on as agriculture commissioner, but his name has also been floated as a possible trade commissioner.

Maroš Šefčovič, Slovakia, Party of European Socialists (PES)
Current role: European Commission vice president in charge of the energy union
Expected role in the new Commission: Slovakia is hoping to get a vice president role with a “strong portfolio,” according to one official.

Frans Timmermans, Netherlands, PES
Current role: European Commission first vice president
Expected role in the new Commission: While Timmermans’ party is not in power in his home country, the Netherlands is nevertheless expected to nominate him. He is likely to take the position of first vice president in the new Commission.

Margrethe Vestager, Denmark, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
Current role: European commissioner for competition
Expected role in the new Commission: Vestager is also expected to take a senior post in the new Commission, under a deal agreed by the European Council of EU leaders.

WHO’S JOINING 

Josep Borrell, Spain, PES
Current role: Spain’s minister for foreign affairs
Expected role in the new Commission: The Council has nominated Borrell as the next EU high representative overseeing foreign affairs and security policy.

Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg, PES
Current role: Member of the European Parliament and former minister for labor, employment, and social economy. Luxembourg’s government is set to nominate Schmit as part of a coalition deal.
Expected role in the new Commission: Schmit has expressed interest in a social policy portfolio.

Kadri Simson, Estonia, ALDE
Current role: Simson served as Estonia’s minister of economic affairs from 2016 until 2019.
Expected role in the new Commission: It’s not certain what role Simson could receive, but in a letter to the Council, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas highlighted her expertise in energy, transport and the internal market.

László Trócsányi, Hungary, EPP
Current role: Trócsányi served as Hungary’s justice minister from 2014 until 2019 and is now a member of the European Parliament.
Expected role in the new Commission: “I certainly have some preferences in this matter but I think it’s too early to talk about them yet,” Trócsányi said in response to a question from POLITICO. According to one senior Fidesz official, Trócsányi is interested in the enlargement portfolio.

Jutta Urpilainen, Finland, PES
Current role: A member of Finland’s parliament, Urpilainen served as the country’s finance minister from 2011 until 2014.
Expected role in the new Commission: While it remains unclear what position Finland would get, Urpilainen’s experience could lead to a finance-oriented portfolio.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany, EPP
Current role: German defense minister
Expected role in the new Commission: The Council nominated von der Leyen to become the next president of the European Commission.

OTHER POSSIBLE MEMBERS

Johannes Hahn, Austria, EPP
Current role: European commissioner for neighborhood policy and enlargement
It’s possible that Austria will nominate Hahn for another term. As the country is currently being governed by a technocratic interim Cabinet, the major parties in the Austrian parliament will have to agree on a candidate. The far-right Freedom Party’s leader Norbert Hofer, for one, has said he can “imagine” Hahn staying at the Commission.

Věra Jourová, Czech Republic, ALDE
Current role: European commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality
Jourová is hoping to stay at the Berlaymont, but much depends on a brewing domestic political crisis in Prague.

Pedro Marques, Portugal, PES
Current role
: Member of the European Parliament and former minister
Portugal’s government is hoping to nominate Marques and is eyeing the regional development portfolio.

WHO’S LEAVING

Andrus Ansip, Estonia, ALDE
Current role: Ansip was the European Commission’s vice president for the digital single market but has resigned to take up a seat in the European Parliament.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Poland, EPP
Current role: European commissioner for the internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs

Miguel Arias Cañete, Spain, EPP
Current role: European commissioner for climate action and energy

Corina Creţu, Romania, PES
Current role: Creţu was the European commissioner for regional policy but has resigned to take up a seat in the European Parliament.

Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg, EPP
Current role: President of the European Commission

Jyrki Katainen, Finland, EPP
Current role: The European Commission’s vice president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness

Julian King, United Kingdom, unaffiliated
Current role: European commissioner for the security union

Carlos Moedas, Portugal, EPP
Current role: European commissioner for research, science and innovation

Neven Mimica, Croatia, PES
Current role: European commissioner for international cooperation and development

Federica Mogherini, Italy, PES
Current role: High representative for foreign affairs and security policy

Pierre Moscovici, France, PES
Current role: European commissioner for economic and financial affairs, taxation and customs

Tibor Navracsics, Hungary, EPP
Current role: European commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport

Günther Oettinger, Germany, EPP
Current role: European commissioner for budget and human resources

Marianne Thyssen, Belgium, EPP
Current role: European commissioner for employment, social affairs, skills and labor mobility

Laura Kayali contributed reporting.

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