Barnier for President, says Brussels-bubble

Will Michel Barnier succeed Juncker as the European Commission chief? The Brussels-bubble thinks so.

Michel Barnier is the top candidate to win the European Commission presidency after next May’s European elections, as a reward for delivering Brexit.

At least, that is what the Brussels-bubble thinks, according to a survey of more than 1,000 EU policy geeks, almost half of whom work in the EU institutions or national embassies, published on Thursday (12 April) by Votewatch Europe.

37% think Barnier will replace Jean-Claude Juncker, who has never entertained the prospect of a second term, in the Berlaymont, followed by Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s Competition chief, and IMF boss Christine Lagarde with 14% and 13% respectively.

But though he may well be the obvious choice in Brussels, Barnier’s main hurdle could lie in the form of the EU’s two power-brokers, his country’s President Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, both of whom are believed to favour Vestager and Lagarde.

In an interview with Der Tagesspiegel on Thursday, EU Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger described Barnier as “certainly one of the very serious potential candidates for the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat”.

Lagarde could also win the consolation prize of replacing Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank. 23% of respondents thought she would swap Washington for Frankfurt when Draghi’s term ends in November 2019.

That still makes her second favourite, behind Bundesbank boss Jens Weidmann, who has long coveted the post. 33% expect him to succeed Draghi.

Across the road in the Justius Lipsus building, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite are believed to be the frontrunners to claim Donald Tusk’s job as president of the European Council, with 25% and 20% of respondents, respectively.

While the survey suggests it will be business as usual, with EPP-affiliated candidates vying for the two top EU jobs, it is in the European Parliament where a shake-up is most likely.

The centre-right EPP is almost certain to remain the largest political group, but the stranglehold that its ‘Grand Coalition’ with the Socialist and Democrat (S&D) group has had on the assembly for a generation is likely to end. Opinion polls suggest that the two groups will fall comfortably short of 50% of the seats in the EU assembly.

The centre-left group will lose its 20 British Labour MEPs to Brexit and is braced for further losses in Italy and Germany, two of its most powerful national delegations.

In France, meanwhile, the French Socialist party took a heavy beating at the 2014 European poll, but it is no stronger now and will struggle to hold onto its 13 deputies.

The situation in the Parliament is further complicated by the likely collapse of the UK Conservative-dominated ECR, and the question of whether Macron’s En Marche party attempts to establish a new faction or join the liberal ALDE group.

Only 46% of Votewatch’s respondents expect the S&D to retain its position as the Parliament’s second largest force. That still appears pessimistic, as the ECR and ALDE only number 72 and 68 MEPs respectively.

Lastly, Germany’s dominance of the EU machinery continues to divide EU policy experts, unsurprisingly, on geographical lines. 70% of respondents from ‘Club Med’ countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Greece) think Germans are too powerful, while only 30% of respondents from Germany and Benelux countries agreed with the statement.

In March, Juncker’s ubiquitous chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, was parachuted in as Secretary-General of the Commission, effectively taking charge of the EU’s civil service. Fellow German Christian Democrat Klaus Welle is the Parliament’s top civil servant, while German MEPs lead both the EPP and the S&D group.

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