18 September 2019 | By Marion Lupin, Marten Männis and Michael Thaidigsmann
Interview with Philippe Lamberts MEP
Green leader blames ‘arrogant’ Socialists and ‘bully’ Macron for European Parliament failure to reach agreement
Philippe Lamberts is co-chair of the group of the European Green Party in the European Parliament. The 56-year-old engineer hails from the Brussels’ municipality of Anderlecht. In the first part of the interview with In-House Legal, he gives a behind-the-scenes account on lawmakers’ failed negotiations to agree on a common platform and candidate for president of the European Commission.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Mr. Lamberts, the European Parliament tried to get its way on the nomination of the new European Commission president, but that failed. You were part of these negotiations. What happened?
LAMBERTS: After the elections, the European Parliament had it in its hands. We had the opportunity to launch a negotiation for a common platform. Had we agreed on such a platform, and on a candidate for Commission president, between the three or four political groups, it would still have been impossible for the European Council to circumvent that, as that would have meant an institutional clash. If you have a wide majority for a political programme and a common candidate, it’s a political feat. So, that was what we embarked to do after the election.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: How come you failed so spectacularly in this endeavour?
LAMBERTS: We were ready to start by the end of May. The Green Group met on 29 May, and we got a mandate from our members to negotiate. Very quickly, we assembled negotiating teams, and ten days after the election, we were fully prepared to start the talks.
The European People’s Party (EPP) group took a little more time, but not much. However, there were two foot-draggers: the Socialists and the Liberals, and for two reasons: One, they were both in the throes of power plays inside their respective groups. The Liberals were overtaken by Macron and his cronies and affected by the blunders of Nathalie Loiseau and all that. So, their focus was pretty inward-looking. Likewise with the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group. It was being taken over by Spain’s Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez. You had in effect two powers external to the European Parliament that made friendly takeover bids on these two groups.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Was that the reason why they couldn’t deliver anything in those negotiations?
LAMBERTS: That was the first reason. We were not in a position to start negotiations because we were still talking with their outgoing group leaders, Udo Bullmann and Guy Verhofstadt. Plus, within their respective groups, they weren’t exactly clear what they wanted to do.
The second reason why these two groups were dragging their feet was because they didn’t want Manfred Weber as Commission president. Normally, when you negotiate a coalition between different groups, the biggest of the negotiating partners provides the prime minister, in this case the president of the European Commission. You might say that Europe is different, but actually, Europe is not different. Why do you think the EPP insisted on keeping the Commission presidency? Because they were the biggest group in the Parliament after the election.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Nonetheless, the EPP was quite fast in falling behind Ursula von der Leyen when the European Council proposed her as Commission president instead of one of the lead candidates…
LAMBERTS: That was later on, but we’re not there yet. At the outset, we had two partners ready to negotiate and two partners dragging their feet. The latter didn’t show up at meetings or postponed them. When they did show up, they didn’t come with a mandate to negotiate. That was really annoying.
Actually, I think it was done on purpose. Apart from their internal power fights, their reasoning was this: If this process is successful, then logically the conclusion of it is that the biggest group provides the Commission president, and that would have been the EPP. The EPP’s candidate was Manfred Weber. And as they didn’t want Manfred Weber, they didn’t want this process to succeed.
The time frame to succeed was of course quite short. But we also knew that the Council would not agree on a candidate immediately after the election in May. It didn’t come to an agreement either a few weeks later. Only on 2 July was an agreement reached. Therefore, after the election, we had at least three weeks to negotiate every day, yet the others only wanted to negotiate for a couple of hours per week. In other words, there was no serious intent on their part.
So, we had no majority willing to really forge an agreement. Just imagine for a moment we would have succeeded. The Council would not only have had to accept the result, but for the first time ever, the core of the Commission work programme would have been written by the Parliament. For me, that was even more important that the spitzenkandidaten process.
MEP Manfred Weber and Ursula von der Leyen in July during the Plenary session that confirmed her as President-elect © European Union 2019, Photographer: Mathieu CUGNOT
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Was the failure to reach an agreement primarily due to the person of Manfred Weber?
LAMBERTS: If you look at it with hindsight, it was, because at the end of the day, both Liberals and Socialists did accept an EPP candidate as head of the Commission. They just didn’t want Weber.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: In your opinion, why is it that Weber had to be prevented as Commission president by all means? After all, he had been a colleague to many parliamentarians for years.
LAMBERTS: Unlike others, the Greens did not reject Weber’s candidacy outright, although for us, he was not the easiest candidate to support. He had been dabbing into support for Viktor Orbán and made some quite radical rightist speeches in the Parliament on occasions, lambasting people like Alexis Tsipras, etc. I’m not saying you can’t do that, but it was very disrespectful at times.
Plus, Manfred Weber is not Green. You have EPP people who are Green-minded, both inside and outside the Parliament, but Weber is not one them.
Nonetheless, I must say that I have no examples to give when Manfred Weber betrayed my trust. He may not be an easy person to negotiate with, but when you have a deal, you have one.
So, while he wouldn’t have been the easiest candidate for us to support, we accepted the rules of the game. We told the others that if an agreement on a programme was reached and if we could trust the candidate proposed by the biggest coalition partner to deliver it, we would play along honestly.
And as far as the Greens are concerned, it was quite something for us not to reject Weber as the potential nominee outright. Had I been able to pick a candidate within the EPP, my choice would have been Michel Barnier. But of course, it was not for me to choose; it was for the EPP to choose. And by the way, it was the EPP that killed Barnier’s chances to become Commission president, nobody else.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Why did the Socialists and the Liberals want to prevent Manfred Weber?
LAMBERTS: I think in the mindset of the Liberals, led by Macron, it was basically motivated by a desire to do something nasty to the EPP. My reading of Macron is this: He is like a child who likes to break the other child’s toy. That’s how he behaves. He’s a bully, someone who is drunk on power. And he wants to show off his power.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: The argument that Weber was too inexperienced for the job could have been used against Macron as well in 2017…
LAMBERTS: Of course. That argument was totally pointless.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Why did the Socialists not support Weber?
LAMBERTS: They felt that if they killed the first spitzenkandidat, the next in line for Commission president would be theirs [Frans Timmermans]. That was of course a stupid calculation. They could not ignore that the EPP had made it clear that they only wanted one of the posts up for grabs at European level, and that was the presidency of the Commission. Before, they had held all of the posts. I find this choice rational. And it was fair because after all, they are the biggest coalition partner.
Even though Socialists and Liberals are not stupid – they knew there was no coalition possible without the EPP – they believed that they could, with different rationales, prevent Manfred Weber. For Macron, it was more about annoying EPP, and for the Socialists it was the hope that they might put their guy in that position.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: And for the Spanish Socialists, the priority was to get one of their own, Josep Borrell, in one of the top jobs?
LAMBERTS: That’s what they wanted. Plus, they also had the chair of the S&D group in the Parliament, so they were quite happy. Anyway, this was the landscape in which a majority in the Parliament decided to give up. I find it very disingenuous that later on, when Ursula von der Leyen was proposed, many Socialists were shouting and blaming the Council for having ignored the will of the Parliament and for having presented its own candidate instead. I said, Hang on a second, you decided not to support a Parliament candidate and you basically handed the choice to the Council, so you only have yourselves to blame for that.
The Parliament had a golden opportunity to assert its role, but because some MEPs decided to let themselves be teleguided by heads of states and government, namely by Macron and Sánchez, they handed over the keys of the Parliament to the Council.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Why was there no majority against the Council candidate Ursula von der Leyen? In a secret ballot, people could have voted as they pleased, without any pressure or public scrutiny…
LAMBERTS: Socialists and Liberals surrendered willingly to the Council. And don’t forget, von der Leyen failed to get almost 90 votes from her own majority. Just imagine Angela Merkel going into the Bundestag with a majority of 444 out of 751. That should be comfortable, no sweat. Plus, von der Leyen knew she could also count on the support of the 5 Stelle movement from Italy and the PiS from Poland, that means 30 votes on top of those from her majority. Numerically, she was at around 470, but she only got 383, so she lost almost 90 votes, probably mostly from members of the S&D and the EPP groups.
In the EPP, there were a few who expressed their displeasure with the Council choice and who genuinely wanted to have Weber. They were angry that they had been overruled.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Could the confirmation vote on the whole Commission in October again be close?
LAMBERTS: I don’t think so. The EPP people will fall in line. Their anger has subsided now.
For some Socialists, it was of course easier to vote against an EPP nominee for Commission president, but it will be less easy to vote against a full Commission where they have ten commissioners from their own political family. And let’s be frank here: The Socialists are motivated by one thing: positions, positions, positions. That is what they want.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Do you think the hearings of the individual Commission nominees in the Parliament committees will make any difference?
LAMBERTS: We are going to see the usual game. The EPP will want to ‘kill’ someone from the Social Democrats and there are easy targets, for example if you look at the nominee from Romania. And then, I guess the Social Democrats will also want to have somebody’s skin. It’s the usual stuff. But that’s going to be it, I think, and I bet von der Leyen’s majority will be substantially bigger than in July.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Do you think the current Parliament will have a tough time in coming to agreements on individual pieces of legislation, compared to the previous one?
LAMBERTS: From the moment the new Commission is installed, people in the majority will behave. As far as we Greens are concerned, we are going to be constructive and support good proposals, or proposals that can be made good enough. And the rest we are going to oppose.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: There won’t be any further negotiations on a common platform?
LAMBERTS: Of course not.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Why not?
LAMBERTS: Because the other parties decided that there wouldn’t be. We were interested in being part of such discussions, and actually, we were the ones who convened the first meeting because in the beginning S&D and Liberals didn’t want to accept any invitations from Manfred Weber. Yet once the Council had decided who will have which post, the question was, What’s the point of this exercise?
We wanted to have clarity. After von der Leyen was nominated by the Council on 2 July, we held a short meeting with the other group leaders in Strasbourg. Weber was still in Brussels, and I told Ciolos and Garcia: Before we continue, I want to have a meeting at the highest level, and I want Manfred Weber to be there. I want to know what you guys want because what is the point in continuing to discuss when actually it may be that you have all surrendered to the Council. So, I wanted to know where they all stood. They said, okay, let’s meet tomorrow at 3 p.m., and then they said 5 p.m., and in the end that meeting didn’t take place.
The week after, when we reconvened in Weber’s office, I asked the question again: What is the point in further negotiating a position? Weber said the EPP wanted to continue the discussions but it was no longer in his hands because the person who now spoke on behalf of the EPP was Ursula von der Leyen, and it was for her to decide whether or not to continue the exercise, and how.
In a way, that was logical, because if one of yours has been designated as the future president of the Commission, it’s logical that he or she decides what to do next with respect to this coalition agreement.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Aren’t such things normally negotiated before a leader is elected?
LAMBERTS: That would have been my approach as well. We signalled to continue these talks, but only if they made sense. Weber said that in principle he was happy to continue, but he added that all the concessions the EPP had made so far were now null and void since they had been conditional on him being becoming the Commission president. To me, that was a bit awkward because normally, when you make concessions they concern the programme, not the posts. One shouldn’t mix up the two.
The Liberals’ position was, Yeah, we absolutely want to continue. I said to their group chairman, Dacian Ciolos, You made your vote for the Commission president conditional on the fact that you find the agreement satisfactory. That means that if you don’t find a satisfactory agreement, you consider voting against von der Leyen, right? To that he said, Ah no. I replied, What is the point then, why should we discuss a paper that actually has no effect?
But they had already given von der Leyen their support, irrespective of whether or not she accepted the results of our negotiations.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: The majority could still have forced her to accept the common programme?
LAMBERTS: No. Once installed, why would she accept that any programme points are imposed upon her?
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Because she still needs to win another vote.
LAMBERTS: I’m not naïve. If she wins the first vote, she will also win the second. And if the Liberals say, We’re going to vote for her regardless but want to keep discussing, I find this totally useless.
And Iratxe Garcia, the Socialist group president, said we should continue the discussions but not link that to the election of the Commission president. In other words: an academic exercise. To me, that was the most revealing answer.
The EPP approach would have been logical, and I signalled to Ursula von der Leyen that if she decided to invite us and pursue the discussions from the point that we had reached, if she invited us under her leadership to pursue negotiations with the four groups, we Greens would engage. We didn’t know if the outcome would have been satisfactory, given that all the difficult points remained unresolved and that we had reached agreement only on the institutional aspects, where the Commission would endorse parliamentary initiatives.
On that aspect, I must say that Manfred Weber was very progressive and very Parliament-oriented. But in the end, von der Leyen decided not to do this. She didn’t want the negotiations between the four groups to continue.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: Did she think she had it in the bag already?
LAMBERTS: Probably, though it’s hard for me to gauge what her calculation was as I’m not very close to her. After the narrow vote on her nomination, I told her, You know, on election night I said there would be no stable pro-European majority in the Parliament without the Greens, and I hope that you realise that now. There can be a stable majority which is not fully pro-European, and there can be a pro-European majority but that will not be very stable. If you want both, you need four groups to be part of it.
She replied, Well, we’ll talk again in September. She then convened a meeting of the four groups in mid-July which I personally didn’t attend. Her message there was that maybe it would be good if we had such a meeting once a month or so to discuss the state of play. But she was very explicit that she would not negotiate her work programme with the Parliament, only allow the Parliament to have a look at it.
Given that she had lost so many votes from her own majority, she needed to shore it up. Now, you can do that in two ways: Either you look for another partner, in order to enlarge the majority and get spare votes so you can afford to lose some (that would be the option involving us). Or you decide to cement your existing majority with three groups, and that is what she chose to do. It is a rational thing to do, from her standpoint.
The Liberals went on board regardless. There were not more than a handful of Liberal MEPs who voted against her. This was basically a Macron success.
She then brought the Socialists on board as well by giving them the key posts they wanted. You know, it is quite easy to negotiate with Socialists. What drives them is positions. If you give them good positions, they will get on board.
The next question for von der Leyen was: What did she need to give to her own side, the right-wing, in order to satisfy them? You need to give them defence, democracy and demography, or what she called ‘Protecting the European Way of Life’. You have to signal to them, Okay, I gave a speech to the Parliament that was rather red and green, but rest assured, I’m one of yours.
That has been her strategy, and I believe it’s going to be successful. She will have a broader majority in October compared with the one she had in July. On the one hand, I’m not happy because the Greens are not part of this. On the other hand, I was very clear from the outset that what comes first for us was the programme, not the posts.
Of course, you also want a good casting, and we wanted to be part of it, but first we discussed content, and then posts. I was very clear, both in the Parliament and with Council President Donald Tusk and everybody else, that if Greens were to be part of a four-way coalition, we want to co-determine the programme and we will then want our fair share of posts.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: In terms of Commission posts, the Liberals and the Socialists did really well, but the Greens only got one commissioner.
LAMBERTS: We didn’t get a commissioner. There is one nominee from Lithuania who is remotely associated with us, but he is not a Green commissioner. I made it clear to Donald Tusk: Don’t think we’ll be happy with one symbolic commissioner. If we are part of the coalition, and if you calculate the relative size of the four partners, we Greens would have been entitled to four commissioners.
Of course, in order to get there, we would have needed member state governments prepared to send Green commissioners, and guess what? In all the places where we are in government at the moment, we are governing together with Social Democrats. And in every case, the Social Democrats want the keep the positions. Giving positions to Greens is a no-go for them.
At one stage, Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez – who didn’t know me before that – called me and said, We want the Greens to be on board and work with you, we Social Democrats are becoming greener by the day, and all the rest of it. I said, If you want us on board, we need to influence the programme and we will want positions. He replied in a very friendly way, Oh, but this you can’t demand because finding an agreement on the top jobs between three parties involved is already so complex; it would be impossible with four partners around the table.
That’s exactly what Sánchez is doing with Podemos at the moment. The arrogance of Social Democrats! At best, they see the Greens as little kids who have to behave and obey their orders, a kind of satellite. In their view, we should already be thankful that we are allowed to sit at the end of the table. That is not the best way to address this, but it is the typical way the Social Democrats behave towards us.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: In the European Parliament, or overall?
LAMBERTS: Overall. Even where they are smaller than we are, they behave arrogantly towards us.
IN-HOUSE LEGAL: After all that has happened, do the Greens consider themselves as an opposition force in the European Parliament?
LAMBERTS: I think it will be business as usual. In the previous Parliament, there was already a coalition between EPP and S&D, but the Liberals were de facto part of that majority. They didn’t have as many positions as they wanted, and this time they have been well served in that regard. And as for the Greens, we will continue to be constructive. We will support good proposals and vote against bad ones.
Don’t count on us to vote for the Mercosur trade agreement and that kind of bullshit, but if we have an adjustment of border taxation, it’s a taboo worth breaking, and if von der Leyen does that she will have 100 percent support from the Greens.
Having an EPP leader speaking about employment reinsurance is not what you might have expected, and yet she did it make such a commitment. I suspect that was on of the reasons why she lost some votes from the EPP.
I also want to dispel the story that is unfolding in some European capitals, that is that the European Greens are extremists who in reality never wanted to be part of coalition, that we never negotiated seriously. That is simply not true.
Actually, when I went on vacation in July, I was quite depressed that we had missed a golden opportunity. Of course, the numbers weren’t there, and the stark reality is that we have 75 MEPs, which is not bad, but it is still only ten percent of the Parliament. With that you are not “incontournable”, as we say in French. Plus, we have only three member state governments in which we are present, and zero head of state or government. Our leverage is not that big.
Usually, we Greens punch above our weight. We were disappointed that following the election in May, the numbers were there to have a majority without us. Not a stable one, but a majority nonetheless. There cannot be a majority without the EPP, or the Social Democrats, or the Liberals, but there can be one without the Greens.
Having said that, I don’t want to give the illusion that we are running after von der Leyen, that we are begging to be considered. The others parties simply haven’t been prepared to pay the price to have the Greens on board, and that’s fine.
The interview with the co-chairman of the Green Group in the European Parliament was conducted on 12 September 2019 by Marion Lupin, Marten Männis and Michael Thaidigsmann. Stay tuned for the second part of the interview with Philippe Lamberts where his talks about key policy issues!