The Brief: The race to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker

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THE RACE TO SUCCEED JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER

Jean-Claude Juncker was the first European Commission president to be appointed through the Spitzenkandidat process and the race to succeed him will be defined by it.

Over the weekend, Juncker told German radio he would not stand for a second term after his current one ends in 2019.

In 2014, each European Parliament political group named a candidate to stand for “election” as Commission chief. Juncker’s European People’s Party won the most seats. After overcoming British opposition, he was confirmed by the European Council.

The genie is now out of the bottle and the Parliament has a much stronger say in who leads the executive than ever before.

The system could disqualify some excellent candidates. Juncker’s deputy, Frans Timmermans, of the Socialists and Democrats, would be many peoples’ pick but, despite his qualities, his victory is dependent on a swing to the left. Margrethe Vestager, a liberal popular for battling Apple, also can’t rely on the votes pouring in for ALDE MEPs.

The new president will most likely be a member of the EPP. Michel Barnier, a former MEP and Commissioner, lost out to Juncker for the 2014 nomination. If his Brexit negotiations are successful, he will be well-placed. But much depends on the results of the upcoming elections in France.

EPP leader Manfred Weber is thought to fancy the job but, despite his headline-grabbing free Interrail ticket initiative, does not have a high enough profile. Many also feel that his native Germany already wields too much influence in Europe.

Jyrki Katainen, the bespectacled former prime minister of Finland and Commission vice-president, is a safe pair of hands and one that is unlikely to ruffle any feathers at the Council.

There is another possibility. Some well-connected EU sources whispered conspiratorially that Juncker only said he didn’t want to face another pan-European campaign.

Were he to be offered the job directly by member states and bypass the Spitzenkandidat system, he could be tempted to stay on as president, they mused.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is no fan of the Spitzenkandidat process. EU institutions are not in the habit of surrendering hard-won territory back to member states but if anyone can wrest it from the Parliament’s grasp, Angela can.

But today Juncker simply said, “Five years is enough.”

THE ROUNDUP

Juncker’s announcement sparked a flurry of press interest. He’s said he’d quit in interviews in Luxembourg before. Cruel wags would point out it matters more when it is said in Germany. To be fair to the Duchy, Juncker also signalled his departure to the Welt Am Sonntag last year. The Commission was baffled as to what all the fuss was about.

The Commission thinks Donald Trump’s fiscal stimulus package will be “bigly huuuuuge”. In its winter forecast, the executive predicted that Trump’s team will spend around €226 billion in 2017 and 2018. The economic impact will be “very limited”, officials said. But it will be big enough for the US to outpace the EU’s economy.

European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis said that the “Greek programme itself is on track” and that the problem is that the International Monetary Fund is coming “with very pessimistic growth and fiscal forecasts as regards to Greece”.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern spent a significant part of his discussions with Jean-Claude Juncker today talking about controversial cuts to childcare benefits for foreign EU citizens in Austria. More on EURACTIV shortly.

Kern also said that the Austrian presidential elections had made the country an example in how to fight right-wing populism. That would be more credible if a far right candidate hadn’t stood a fair chance of getting elected in the first place…

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani told EURACTIV Spain that the UK and EU won’t be enemies after Brexit. The UK faces an employment crisis with EU workers in Britain worried about Brexit.

Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose party leads most polls, said his opponents will soon forget their pledges to never work with him. It prompted current PM Mark Rutte to return to Twitter for the first time in six years to reiterate that there is “zero percent chance” of it happening.

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron might be the current favourite but many in rural areas of France don’t know who he actually is. Rock star economist Thomas Piketty, working for a rival candidate, wants to “democratise” the euro.

European leaders have welcomed the election of Frank-Walter Steinmeier as Germany’s new president. The former foreign minister has been billed as “the anti-Trump”.

Switzerland loves a referendum. This weekend it sent the government back to the drawing board when voters rejected an overhaul of the corporate tax system.

China’s steel output increased by more than double the UK’s annual output, despite promises to the contrary.

Romania’s mass protests continue unabated despite Bucharest’s freezing weather conditions The EU will be hoping for a similar amount of passion when the March for Europe is held in Rome on 25 March.

Sam Morgan contributed to this Brief. 

LOOK OUT FOR…

Guy Verhofstadt ran for Commission president in 2014. He was also blocked from the top job by Tony Blair in 2004. Being ALDE, his 2019 chances are slim. The Brief hasn’t always seen eye to eye with The Hof but the passionate orator is always good entertainment value.  We will be watching when the Parliament’s Brexit boss debates the future of the EU in Strasbourg at 9AM tomorrow.

Views are the author’s alone and not our sponsor’s.

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