Katainen seeks top EU job

Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen [Wikimedia]

The race for the European Union’s leadership has turned murkier, with the news that Finland’s prime minister is stepping down to seek a European role, while France is touting its ex-finance minister as its nominee for a European Commission post.

That undermines the chances of two potential compromise candidates – both French – to head the executive body, in what is expected to be a tough fight between governments, and the European Parliament, in June, with the added spice of a eurosceptic Britain following its own agenda.

The European Parliament, the EU’s only directly-elected body, wants the next Commission president – the big prize – to be the leading candidate of the political group which wins the most votes in next month’s European parliamentary election.

The floor leaders of the three biggest political parties said as much on Thursday in a joint statement, declaring: “The next elected Commission president will be the result of a transparent process, not the product of back-room deals.”

But if no party wins a clear victory, and if Britain objects to the official frontrunners as too integrationist, the top job may go to a dark-horse third candidate, as it did in 2004, when Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso was picked to break a deadlock.

One potential compromise candidate, centre-right Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, 42, threw his hat in the ring on Saturday (5 April), though he does not plan to stand in May’s election. Katainen said he would resign this summer after three years in office, and was available for EU or international roles.

Two other frequently mentioned compromise figures are French: International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and former World Trade Organisation chief Pascal Lamy. Both are regarded as competent, market-friendly technocrats, with a track record of running complex bureaucracies.

But a candidate must be put forward by his or her home country, and France can only name one Commission member.

So if Socialist outgoing Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has indeed been promised that slot, as he and government sources said when he lost his cabinet seat last week, that would appear to rule out either the centre-right Lagarde, herself a former finance minister, or Lamy, a moderate Socialist seen by some on the French left as too supportive of globalisation.

Even if Moscovici ends up in the planned role of full-time chairman of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers rather than in the Commission, it is highly unlikely that France could land two top jobs. But one seasoned EU diplomat said it was conceivable that other EU leaders could appeal to President François Hollande to change his nominee for Europe’s sake.

Katainen, a highly regarded modernising ex-finance minister who has held together an unwieldy left-right coalition, might also be a contender for the Eurogroup chair. But his country’s sceptical hard line on bailouts in the euro zone crisis may make him unattractive to heavily indebted southern EU states.


Diplomats say British Prime Minister David Cameron has told some EU colleagues privately that neither of the current “Spitzenkandidaten” (frontrunners) to lead the Commission – German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, and centre-right Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker – is acceptable to London.

Both are seen as old-fashioned federalists, anathema to Britons seeking to erase the EU’s treaty aim of “ever closer union” and a liability when Cameron plans to renegotiate membership terms and put the result to a referendum in 2017.

Previous British prime ministers vetoed federalist Belgian favourites for the Commission presidency in 1994 and 2004.

Although London has no veto this time over a decision now subject to qualified majority voting, it might find enough allies to block either man. Regardless, the EU does not normally outvote a big member state on a matter of national interest.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also voiced scepticism on Thursday about the Spitzenkandidat system.

The Commission presidency is just one of four or five top jobs that will be carved up among member states, respecting a delicate balance between north and south, east and west, large states and small ones, left, right and centre, men and women.

While insisting he is running to head the Commission, Juncker, 59, has said he would be honoured to serve as president of the European Council, succeeding Belgian Herman Van Rompuy as full-time chairman of EU summits, a key broker of compromises.

Juncker, among the first to advocate issuing joint euro zone bonds in 2008, sought to reassure Germans in a speech on Saturday that he would oppose common euro zone bonds, rapid EU enlargement, or unchecked power for Brussels.

The other jobs in the mix, apart from the Commission presidency and Eurogroup chair, include the post of EU foreign policy chief, currently held by Britain’s Catherine Ashton, and the presidency of the European Parliament.

Other potential contenders for various jobs include Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former Italian premier Enrico Letta on the left, and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait? and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on the right.

Each has drawbacks as well as advantages, and none stands out as an overwhelming natural choice, but then nor did Barroso.

Thorning-Schmidt’s country is not in the euro zone, and some may argue that Nordic social democrats already have one big job with the appointment last week of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as Secretary General of NATO.

Italy already has a major European position with Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank. That would appear to rule out Letta, 47, and his predecessor, Mario Monti, 71, who is still revered in Brussels from his time as a commissioner.

Grybauskait?, 58, a former EU budget commissioner who shares with the late Margaret Thatcher the nickname “Iron Lady”, would tick the gender, east European and small country boxes.

But some might object that she was once a member of the Soviet Communist Party. She also appears to have taken herself out of the EU race, by standing for a second term as president in May.

Kenny, 62, is admired for his leadership during Ireland’s successful bailout programme, but the former schoolteacher has no international experience or foreign languages.

Thorning-Schmidt, 47, gained overnight celebrity last year with a “selfie” picture taken with US President Barack Obama, and David Cameron, at a memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. But the economic reformer has struggled to keep her ruling coalition together and is not popular with voters.

A Brussels insider said she and Kenny also suffer among core EU countries from being perceived as “the British candidates”. 

The European elections will be held in all EU countries in May 2014. The Lisbon Treaty states that the European Parliament shall elect the Commission president on the basis of a proposal made by the European Council, taking into account the European elections (Article 17, Paragraph 7 of the TEU). This will apply for the first time in the 2014 elections.

European Parliament, parties and many others have pushed for these parties to nominate their front-runners in the election campaigns. This would make the European elections a de facto race for the Commission president seat, would politicise the campaigns and could increase voter turnout, they say.

But others have argued that the European parties’ push for own candidates may not be the best solution. Raising expectations could easily lead to disappointment, Herman Van Rompuy has repeatedly said, calling for caution in case the European Council chooses another candidate than the winning party’s frontrunner.

  • 25 May: European elections
  • 27 May: EU leaders meet for an extraordinary summit to discuss the results of the EU elections

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