The specter of French domination has come back to haunt the European Parliament’s liberal Renew Europe group.
The group is in search of a new leader after Dacian Cioloș, a former Romanian prime minister, stepped aside to lead his national party back home. The move has sparked internal jockeying over who will lead the group — and, perhaps more importantly, which country that person will come from.
Renew’s geographic politics are fraught, given its origin story. The group emerged two years ago following a merger of Parliament’s old liberal group, ALDE, with French President Emmanual Macron’s new “Renaissance” delegation. That made the French delegation the largest within the rebranded group: Renew Europe. And it left some Renew MEPs, particularly those from the north and central European countries, wary that France may try to impose its will through the group.
Many concede the French have adopted a rather conciliatory approach over the two-plus years. They even elected Cioloș after the French candidate, Nathalie Loiseau, caused an uproar among colleagues and dropped out of the race. But with Cioloș leaving, fears are reemerging that France might be ready to make its move, just weeks after Macron gathered Renew MEPs in Paris and issued a “Paris Declaration” defining the group’s priorities.
Speculation has now begun that Renew’s French delegation will come up with its own candidate to lead the group. And that has left some Renew MEPs worried that a French group leader will use the perch to push a vision of liberalism — a politically toxic word in French — that does not reflect the free-trade, market-orientated views of the old liberal ALDE group.
“There is a two-thirds majority of MEPs that are ALDE members, and now we have a chance to re-balance what has been off-balance for years,” said an MEP from one of Renew’s northern delegations.
Without mentioning the French in particular, the MEP emphasized that “the voice of the truly liberal part of the group, including those who stick to the liberal principles of free-trade, market-driven and opposed to state financing economies, needed to be heard.”
The stakes of a leadership change are high for the Renew liberal family, the third-largest force in the European Parliament. It is trying to consolidate power in Brussels and seek a leading position in time for the 2024 elections. And for the French, finding a like-minded leader for Renew Europe will be vital to pushing France’s policy priorities as it prepares to take over the Council of the EU’s rotating presidency in January.
Cioloş announced his departure on Sunday, shortly after the MEP was elected leader of Romania’s liberal Union to Save Romania-PLUS (USR-PLUS). Cioloş made the move as Romania’s government faces a no-confidence vote that could create openings for USR-PLUS.
The race to replace Cioloş is still in its early stages, and Renew leaders have not set an election date. The group will discuss its timing at meetings this week.
“My proposal will be to organize elections as soon as possible, to bring the necessary clarity to the group, and to give the new president the necessary mandate to negotiate with the other groups on the midterm,” Cioloş wrote in an email to Renew Europe MEPs, referring to the January 17 date when the Parliament will choose its president and leadership positions for the second half of the five-year legislature.
Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld is so far the only official contender to lead Renew, but she doesn’t necessarily have unanimous support.
“It would be an incredible honor to have the chance to lead the most pro-European group in Parliament, a group brimming with energy and ideals, and to fully unlock its potential,” she told POLITICO on Saturday.
A long-time ally of the group’s former leader, Guy Verhofstadt, in ’t Veld, an MEP since 2009, has run to lead the liberal group once before. While some delegations might be more inclined to support her now to avoid having a French leader, many question her ability to create consensus between Renew’s progressive and conservative factions.
“Sophie, we all like her, she’s full of verve in everything she does, but she is not the middle-ground candidate, she is not someone who will gather a majority,” another Renew MEP said.
Several Renew members said the French delegation was considering Stéphane Séjourné, a key political adviser to Macron and leader of the French “Renaissance” delegation, as a candidate to replace Cioloş. But they argued that it will be difficult for the French — especially for someone as close to French power as Séjourné — to seek compromise with those in the group who are not on the same line as the French.
Renew’s French delegation has 23 MEPs and oversees three parliamentary committees, including the crucial environment committee, which deals with climate change. And even though French MEPs backed Cioloş to helm Renew, they knew he was also a Macron ally with a French wife and longstanding connections to French politics.
“The French are dominant in the sense that they are determining everything, they had influence through Ciolos,” a third non-French Renew MEP said. “It’s not that we get orders from Macron, but we know Cioloş was his man here.”
Many liberals have had trouble aligning with some of Macron’s views, especially his reluctance to use the word “liberal,” which is often used negatively in France as a representation of heartless ultra-capitalism. Many from the group’s northern delegations have a more free-trade approach than their French colleagues, and they don’t always share the French views on issues like budgeting, tackling climate change or building a unified, European defense.
The European defense issue specifically does not align with the agenda of many Renew delegations, including those from the Baltic countries that share borders with Russia and see NATO as the best military force to counter Russian aggression.
When Macron met with Renew MEPs last month, he focused more on the subjects the group could broadly agree on: upholding rule of law, a push for sustainable growth and enhancing European sovereignty. The visit was deemed a success by many non-French MEPs, even as the resulting “Paris Declaration” skirted over the group’s dividing lines on economic and social views.
In ‘t Veld and Séjourné are not the only contenders to take over Renew.
Other names being floated include Luis Garicano, the head of the Spanish Ciudadanos party and a vice-chair of the group, as well as Andrus Ansip, one of the few MEPs who was both a former prime minister and a former EU commissioner. Ansip, who is Estonian, could also be well placed to represent the north and eastern delegations of the group. But his country only has three MEPs within Renew.
“We want a candidate that gets a clear majority to bring the group to a step forward,” said Spanish MEP Adrían Vasquez Lara, a Ciudadanos member and chairman of the Parliament’s legal affairs committee.