The EU top jobs: Who’s next?


On 22-25 May, EU citizens cast their ballots to elect 751 members of the European Parliament. But MEPs will not be the only ones to perform a game of musical chairs: 2014 will also bring about change in many of the top positions in the EU.

The positions that will become available in the course of this year are:

  • The Commission presidency, currently held by José Manuel Barroso who will step down when the current Commission's term ends;
  • The European Council presidency, currently held by Herman Van Rompuy, who has announced he will retire after his term expires in late November;
  • EU high representative for foreign and security policy, currently held by Catherine Ashton, who will step down when the current Commission's term ends;
  • NATO secretary general, currently held by Danish liberal Anders Fogh Rasmussen, which becomes available on 1 October.

Traditionally, EU top jobs are the result of a hard bargaining process between the member states. Who will take centre stage on the European (and transatlantic) level is negotiated on the basis of nationality and political allegiance, and is due to reflect a fair representation of European member states and of the political power balance in Europe.

As part of the bargaining chips, a number of other positions will become available in the course of 2014:

  • The European Commissioner roles, for which each member state nominates their candidate to the Commission president;
  • The presidency of the next European Parliament, as this position is due to changes with each parliamentary legislature;
  • The Parliament's committee chairs, vice-presidency roles and 'quaestor' roles.

The EU elections have been promoted under the slogan ‘This time it’s different’. The outcome of the popular vote will – for the first time in history and as a consequence of the changes brought by the Lisbon Treaty – influence the selection of the next president of the European Commission.

Europeans across the 28 member states headed 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 other lead positions in the EU institutions also come to an end.

The Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, strengthened the powers of the European Parliament in the post-election phase, including granting it 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, which has to “take into account” the results of the European elections (Article 17.7, TEU).

'Presidential elections’ and presidential debates

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 said it would foster a more open, democratic process in naming the person to lead the EU executive. "It gives the Commission president a dual endorsement," former liberal MEP and former president of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) Andrew Duff told EURACTIV.

Offering voters the choice to elect, albeit indirectly, the next president of the Commission was also hoped to boost turnout. The turnout 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."

Five European political parties nominated their frontrunners to become the next European Commission president. This is the list of politicians that led the pan-European campaigns and travelled to member states in the course of the campaign:

In the EU election campaign in the first half of 2014, lead candidates - or Spitzenkandidaten ?in German- acted as figureheads for the European parties. They faced each other in televised 'Presidential Debates', which added to the momentum of the presidential race.

>>All info and dates on the European presidential debates

Several of the debates were broadcasted across a number of European countries. Especially the last full Presidential Debate, held in Brussels on 15 May, was broadcasted by members of the European Broadcasting Union, mainly public broadcasters from (almost) all member states.

Party candidates vs political reality

The parties' attempt to determine the next Commission president through single candidates was clear. But the procedure for the post-election negotiations remained unclear to all involved in the process.

The Spitzenkandidat representing the largest political group in the next Parliament would serve as a candidate designate, but other parties could also agree on a coalition supporting a different candidate. The EU election results had the centre-right group, the EPP, in the first spot with 221 seats, followed closely by the socialist S&D (191 seats) and other groups between 70 and 48 seats.

Paulo Rangel, Portuguese MEP for the EPP group, coordinated a rapport the EU Parliament to clarify the rules of play. He said in a public hearing: "In the existing article (17.7, TEU) there is a link, but the question is how to materialise this link".

Many EU pundits cast doubts over the attempt to put forward Spitzenkandidaten prior to the elections. The incumbent European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, expressed his 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

Two practical issues cast a shadow over the parties’ attempts to raise the stakes and lure voters.

  • Sitting prime ministers or other prominent politicians showed reluctance to enter the 2014 race that was highly uncertain. They feared being left out in the cold when top positions were given out. An example of this is Enda Kenny: the Irish Taoiseach (or prime minister) was named as a possible contender but debunked such rumours, stressing that he wants to remain head of government up 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 required, for instance, the socialist Martin Schulz to secure an endorsement from the centre-right dominated German government, or the liberal Guy Verhofstadt to get an endorsement from the plural Belgian government.

Bargaining chips

While looking to find a compromise between EU leaders on the Commission's lead position, heads of state are bound to find 'balance' in the top triangle of EU jobs. The 'top triangle' - the EU Commission presidency, European Council presidency and High Representative for foreign and security policy - must be evenly distributed between north and south, east and west and young and old.

The reason for this, the spokesperson of Jean-Claude Juncker said in July, is a paragraph agreed by member states that the top jobs' distribution needs "to respect the geographical and demographic diversity of the Union and its Member States," following a declaration in the EU treaties.

Many other high-level positions in the institutions can be used as leverage in the negotiations:

  • The European Parliament presidency;
  • Commission portfolios such Trade, Economic and Monetary Affairs, Foreign and Security Affairs, Energy, Justice and Home Affairs, 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, politicians like the Belgian defence minister Pieter De Crem or even Commission president Barroso set their sights on becoming the next secretary general of the transatlantic defence alliance, NATO. The position came into play as part of the 'balanced distribution' in the making. 

But at the end of March, leaders from NATO member states selected Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, to succeed the current secretary general, Danish liberal Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on 1 October 2014.

The Commissioners: a list

At the time of writing, a number of European governments nominated their Commissioner. Find our full infographic (Version 0.1) on the nominated commissioners, below:

Find the link to the related story, here: link.

The Parliament: a list

The European Parliament held its first plenary session of the mandate on 1-3 July 2014. At the session, MEPs agreed on the number of members to sit in different committees and elected the new Parliament president, the vice-presidents and the quaestors.

Find a link to the related story, here: link.

European Elections

  • 22-25 May 2014: European elections are held in all 28 member states of the European Union.

Post-elections formation of Parliament & Commission

(Post-election dates are provisional and will change according to the progress made in Parliament-European Council negotiations.)

  • June 2014: Parliament political groups start informal negotiations with EU Council on next Commission president.
  • 26-27 June: EU summit expected to designate new EU Commission President
  • 1-3 July: First plenary session of the newly constituted European Parliament. Informal negotiations with EU heads of states
  • 14-17 July: Parliament votes to approve or reject Commission president nominee in Strasbourg plenary session
  • By end July: National leaders designate their commissioners to Brussels
  • August-September: New president distributes portfolios within his team of 27 commissioners
  • September: Commissioners are scrutinised in individual hearings before Parliament committees
  • 30 Sept. 2014: End of mandate of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of NATO
  • October: European Parliament votes to approve or reject new Commission College as a whole
  • 1 November: Target date for new Commission to take office
  • November: End of mandate of Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council.

European Institutions

The 2014 EU elections:

The Presidents:

North Atlantic Treaty Organization:

Think tanks & Public Affairs

European political parties

Parties nominating a single candidate:

  • European People's Party (EPP) website
  • Party of European Socialists (PES) website
  • Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) website
  • European Green Party (EGP) website
  • Party of the European Left website

Other parties:

  • Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) website
  • Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy (MELD) website
  • European Democratic Party (EDP) website
  • European Free Alliance (EFA) website
  • European Alliance for Freedom (EAF) website
  • Alliance of European National Movements (AEMN) website
  • European Christian Political Movement (ECPM) website
  • EU Democrats (EUD) website

Media & Commentary



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