Europeans across the 28 member states head to the polls in May to elect a new European Parliament for 2014-2019. The elections signal a change in the European Commission, while the mandates of European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also come to an end.
The Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, strengthened the power of the European Parliament, including the power to elect the president of the European Commission. The 2014 elections are the first to be held under the Lisbon Treaty. Parliament is set to elect the Commission’s next leader on the basis of a proposal by the European Council, “taking into account” the results of the European elections (Article 17.7, TEU).
European parties want ‘presidential elections’
Over the past few years, Europe's main political parties have pushed to put forward their designated candidates for the EU Commission presidency. The European Parliament endorsed the idea in a report released in June 2013, in which it called on European political parties "to nominate their candidates ... for them to be able to mount a significant, European-wide campaign that concentrates on European issues".
Proponents of the initiative say this would foster a more open, democratic process in naming the person to lead the EU executive. "It gives the Commission president a dual endorsement," liberal MEP and former member of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) Andrew Duff told EurActiv.
Offering voters the choice to elect, if indirectly, the next president of the Commission is also hoped to boost turnout, which was dramatically low (43%) in last EU elections, in 2009, and had dropped consistently since the first EU elections in 1979.
Yves Bertoncini, director of the think tank Notre Europe - Jacques Delors Institute, told EurActiv: "Putting ‘faces’ on the parties' campaigns makes the elections more personal. On a European level, this hasn’t really been the case so far. Having top candidates like Martin Schulz, Viviane Reding or others go into debate: that’s what politics is made of."
The lead candidates - or "Spitzenkandidaten" in German- will act as figureheads in the pan-European election campaigns. They will face each other in televised 'presidential debates' in the course of the campaign, adding to the momentum of this presidential race.
At this time, two debates have been confirmed. The Committee of Regions invites the candidates for a debate in Athens on 8 March, which will serve as a kickoff for the pan-European elections. The European Parliament hosts a debate in the last stretch of the campaign, on 14 May. Candidates will also face each others in other debates - yet to be confirmed.
So far, three parties have nominated frontrunners and others are in the process of doing so. This is the list of certain and likely figures to compete for the EU Commission top job in the campaign:
(List includes: Jean-Claude Juncker for the European People's Party; Martin Schulz for the Party of European Socialists; Guy Verhofstadt and Olli Rehn for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; José Bové and Ska Keller for the European Green Party; and Alexis Tsipras for the European Left.)
Parties' attempt to determine the next Commission president through single candidates is clear. But the procedure for the post-election negotiations is new territory, and has remained unclear so far.
Presumably, the figurehead representing the largest political group in the next Parliament will serve as a candidate designate. Parties could also agree on a coalition supporting a single candidate to put to the European Council, after the elections. Observers have spotted the likelihood of a coalition between Socialists, Liberals and Greens to circumvent the centre-right EPP, which is likely to remain the largest party in the European Parliament.
Paulo Rangel, Portuguese MEP for the EPP group, is rapporteur for an initiative in the EU Parliament to clarify the rules of play. He said in a public hearing on the matter: "In the existing article (17.7, TEU) there is a link, but the question is how to materialise this link."
But many have cast doubts over this attempt to put forward single candidates prior to the elections. The incumbent European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, has expressed concern that putting forward single candidates could create false expectation among voters, and warned that it was not at all certain that this candidate would be nominated by the European Council afterwards.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that, according to the treaties, there is "no automatic link" between the party that wins the EU elections and the next Commission president.
According to Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, these single candidates would politicise the Commission leadership: "A captain of one of the teams cannot be a fair referee", she wrote in the Financial Times.
Political reality meets practicality: 'Dark-Horse' candidates
Two practical issues cast a shadow over the parties’ attempts to raise the stakes and lure voters.
- Sitting prime ministers or other prominent politicians could show reluctance to enter a race that’s highly uncertain, fearing being left out in the cold when top positions are given out. An example of this is Enda Kenny. The Irish Taoiseach (or prime minister) has persistently been named in Brussels as a possible contender but has debunked such rumours, stressing that he wants to remain head of government until Ireland's national elections in 2015.
- The candidates will also need an endorsement from their national governments, as they will serve as their country’s commissioner in the next EU executive. This would require, for instance, the socialist Martin Schulz to secure an endorsement from the centre-right dominated German government, or for the centre-right Barnier to secure the nomination of the French Socialist government.
In post-election phase, all the pieces of the puzzle will have to fall into place, a process that could take some time (see Timeline). EU leaders and MEPs, notably, will have to reach an agreement on how political families and parties get their piece of the pie.
A trade-off may follow, in which dark-horse candidates could take centre stage:
(List includes: Christine Lagarde, Pascal Lamy, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Dalia Grybauskaitė, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Jyrki Katainen.)
Other positions as bargaining chips
These contenders are in the running for the two most prominent 'presidential' positions in the EU. In the deal on top jobs, many other high-level positions in the institutions act as leverage.
EU leaders hope to come up with balanced leadership in the Commission, Council and Parliament. Influential positions include:
- The European Parliament presidency, currently held by Martin Schulz;
- Commission portfolios such Trade (now Karel De Gucht), Economic and Monetary Affairs (now Olli Rehn), Home Affairs (now Cecilia Malmström), Justice (now Viviane Reding) and others;
- The director-general positions in the Commission's departments (or DGs) or head-of-cabinet positions flanking the commissioners, which are negotiated when the new Commission takes office (read our previous LinksDossier on the subject).
Member states usually look to secure such jobs for their national officials. The political balance is also key: top positions are usually divided between the two largest political families, the socialists and the centre-right, with liberals in third place to ask for top spots.
Over the past few months, some politicians had set their sights on becoming the next secretary general of the transatlantic defence alliance, NATO. Amongst others, president Barroso of the EU Commission and the Belgian defence minister Pieter De Crem allegedly lobbied hard to get the job.
End of March, leaders from NATO member states selected Jens Stoltenberg to succeed the current secretary general, Danish liberal Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on 1 October 2014. Stoltenberg is the former prime minister of Norway and the leader of the Norwegian Labour Party.
Apart from a new NATO secretary general, Europeans are also on the lookout for a successor to Catherine Ashton, who's mandate as the first high representative for foreign and security affairs ends this year. The high representative is part of the Commission, and so the prestigious position is up for grabs when the new team is formed over the summer.
At this time, much remains unclear on who will take this spot. Amongst the candidates:
(List includes: Radoslaw Sikorski.)