The EU’s Rubik’s cube: Who will lead after 2014?

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Europe's leaders have a veritable Rubik’s cube of political considerations to solve in 2014 in order to appoint a new EU leadership triumvirate, writes Hugo Brady, giving his take on who are the up-and-comers in a changing European balance of power.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

To read an unabridged version of the following op-ed, please click here.

"Next year, EU leaders will decide who will succeed Herman Van Rompuy, José Manuel Barroso and Catherine Ashton as, respectively, the next president of the European Council, president of the European Commission and high representative for foreign affairs. These (no doubt) excruciating deliberations will begin in earnest after the European Parliament (EP) elections in May 2014.

EU watchers remember well the surprise – and for some, disappointment – that greeted the announcement of Van Rompuy and Ashton in late November 2009. Both appointments were judged to indicate a low level of ambition on the part of national governments for the EU leadership posts created by the Lisbon treaty. Likewise, the earlier reappointment of the conservative and careful Barroso for another five years was an homage to the status quo.

Europe's political landscape has changed significantly since 2009. Germany has emerged as the dominant EU country while France's own economic woes have for the present reduced its power over the Union. The Mediterranean countries have haemorrhaged political influence, as their economies have fallen into crisis. Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain – have either become clients or wards of the EU.

Under David Cameron, Britain has exiled itself to the Union’s margins to such an extent that it is impossible to imagine a Briton in any senior EU portfolio after 2014 other than single market, competition or trade commissioner. And Poland now styles itself as the 'France of the East’: a country with a healthy and large economy,  a complement to, and restraint on, German power; and the independent, utilitarian leader of the newer member-states.

Given these factors, who are the likeliest candidates for the EU top three in 2014? Of the Mediterranean countries, none seem to have a potential claim on a top EU post. Mario Draghi already heads the European Central Bank. And Franco Frattini – a former Italian foreign minister and European commissioner – is currently angling to succeed Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary general in 2014. (Frattini faces competition from Belgium's Pieter De Crem, Norway's Espen Barth Eide, Slovenia's Danilo Türk, Slovakia's Miroslav Lajcak, and perhaps even Turkey's president, Abdullah Gül, for the NATO post.)

Poland’s current prime minister, Donald Tusk, and its eloquent foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, are clear favourites for the post of Commission president and high representative respectively, though of course both jobs could not go to Poles. Germany might back Tusk in order to cement Berlin’s political alliance with Warsaw and because it is time for someone from one of the newer member-states to get a top job. But would Tusk be strong enough to lead the Commission in difficult times, or even willing to seek the EPP's nomination for president? If not, his name should be included in the rather small pool of potential candidates to succeed Van Rompuy.

Another variable is whether Sikorski may replace Ban-Ki Moon as secretary general of the United Nations since, under the UN practice of buggins’ turn, the next incumbent looks likely to be an Eastern European. Even if not, the UK is thought to be opposed to the outspoken and ambitious Sikorski becoming high representative: despite his British roots he has become a champion of European integration. Other potential candidates include Sweden’s Carl Bildt, Finland’s Alexander Stubb or Bulgaria's Kristalina Georgieva. The latter has impressed many as the EU's humanitarian aid commissioner.

Alternatively, Europe’s leaders may decide that – given current political realities – it would be prudent to fill one of the top EU posts with a German. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Bundestag opposition leader, and a former foreign minister, might secure the high representative post, for example. Even if his Social Democratic Party is not in government after September, Steinmeier has significant bi-partisan appeal and was vice-chancellor in Germany’s 2005-2009 grand coalition. Furthermore, his appointment would signal a new German interest in taking on more leadership responsibility in foreign policy.

France’s present weakness is one of the most worrying political developments in today’s EU, since this has led to French insecurity, German over-confidence and a rapid deterioration of the Franco-German relationship. Ideally, François Hollande, the French president, would promote Christine Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund for Commission president. Lagarde would represent the best chance of an effective counter-balance to the North European conviction that austerity alone is the cure for the eurozone's ills.

Under Lagarde, the IMF has been the most influential international critic of EU policies guided by this orthodoxy. However, Lagarde is a centre-right politician and former finance minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and therefore would not secure the PES ticket. She is also currently mired in an as-yet inconclusive investigation by French police into allegations of corruption during her time in government. All of this probably renders Lagarde’s candidature invalid, which is a pity: she would make a stronger EPP candidate for Commission president than either Tusk or Reding.

However, Pascal Lamy – the current head of the World Trade Organisation and ex-European commissioner – has a respectable pedigree on the left, having served as an advisor to former French finance minister and Commission president, Jacques Delors as well as a former socialist prime minister, Pierre Mauroy. Hollande should consider promoting Lamy for the PES candidacy to help shore up French influence within the Union. 

Europe's leaders have a veritable Rubik’s cube of political considerations to solve in 2014 in order to appoint a new EU leadership triumvirate. They must find three candidates who together represent the right balance geographically and politically, as well as satisfying new sensitivities over democratic legitimacy, gender and the concern that the Union is slowly splitting into a eurozone cabal and an outer ring of non-euro rule-takers. The trio's final identity is largely contingent on the eurozone crisis, which will continue to re-shape European politics in the run up to the May 2014 elections.

Given Europe's current challenges, it is to be hoped that governments and the pan-European political parties co-operate together to agree a pantheon of star candidates. But what may happen is that the election results, combined with the alchemical effect of the appointments process itself, will eliminate early front-runners and give previously unlikely nominees a new veneer of credibility. In that sense, 2014 could well be a re-run of 2009."

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