The race for EU top posts heats up

Lead candidates of the main European political parties pose ahead of a live debate at the European parliament in Brussels on 15 May 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Familiar faces and new names will be competing for the EU’s top jobs, as capitals are starting to manoeuvre and prepare the ground for their preferred candidates, EURACTIV has found out after talking to EU officials and diplomats.

As Europeans go to the ballot box to vote for the kind of EU they want in the next five-year mandate, the big question mark in Brussels is who will get the presidencies of the European Commission, the European Council, the Parliament and the ECB.

They will steer the bloc in a turbulent period, marked by a trade war that could worsen, the real possibility of a disorderly Brexit, and the risk of a recession looming on the horizon.

EURACTIV has talked to officials in all institutions involved, diplomats and other stakeholders. The first conclusion is that the European People’s Party lead candidate, Manfred Weber, is already discarded as a realistic option.

Although the EPP is expected to win the most seats (some projections foresee 171 seats for the group, 20 more than the Social Democrats), and the big parties still support the ‘Spitzenkandidaten process’, only his staunch supporters believe he will be nominated as Commission chief.

The Brief – Requiem for a Spitzenkandidat

The Sibiu summit saved the Spitzenkandidaten way of choosing the new Commission president – for now at least. That’s one way to interpret the recent decisions taken by the 27 EU leaders in this cosmopolitan Romanian city.

An important group of member states, including France, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria, and led by French President Emmanuel Macron, is against the automatism of picking the Spitzenkandidaten who can gather a majority in the Parliament.

Weber, a German MEP from the CSU with no executive experience, received lukewarm support from Chancellor Angela Merkel and remains unknown in Europe, even for 75% of his compatriots.

If Weber falls in the early discussions, his fellow EPP fighter Michel Barnier is seen as an alternative for the Commission president. The EU’s Brexit negotiator already participated in the EPP primaries in 2014.

In an interview with Belgian newspaper Le Soir, Macron described his compatriot as a “man who has great qualities and he demonstrated this once again in the way he handled negotiations with the British.”

Despite this endorsement, and Barnier’s intense agenda over the past months, including presidential-type speeches across the EU, few consider that he will be the final choice to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker.

A couple of officials said the Frenchman would be discarded as quickly as Weber.

The Brief – Against all odds

If the race for the EU’s top job this summer really comes down to a choice between Manfred Weber and Michel Barnier, the outcome might still surprise us.

While their chances faded in recent days, World Bank chief executive Kristalina Georgieva has gained traction in the last few weeks. The Bulgarian economist is well-regarded thanks to her experience in the Commission, her communication skills, and her fighting spirit.

A diplomat argued that Georgieva could be the only EPP candidate acceptable for other parties, and she is likeable both among Eastern and Western members. Even her opponents in Bulgaria, chiefly Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, did not oppose her nomination in recent remarks.

Burning frontrunners 

But her name may have come up too early to survive the first filter, in which parties and factions will veto each other’s favourites.

“Frontrunners stumble first,” said a well-informed national official, who admitted they would not share their preferred candidate if they had one.

Inside the Commission, some downplayed Georgieva’s chances as only a rumour. Instead, another suggested name is the IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. The former French finance minister has powerful allies in the EU executive, including the secretary-general Martin Selmayr, an EU official said.

She is also considered for the ECB presidency. But for the time being, Lagarde insists that she is happy in her current position.

Still, Selmayr maintains regular contact with her, a source explained. He already proved his skills to pick the winning horse with Juncker – Selmayr was his campaign chief and later chief of staff.

The final result will depend largely on how the nomination process unfolds.

Spitzenkandidaten survives Sibiu, Tusk calls summit for 28 May

Europe’s leaders on Thursday (9 May) agreed to attend an emergency summit immediately after the EU elections on 28 May, as European Council President Donald Tusk said he wanted to have the distribution of the bloc’s top jobs decided in June.

The first post to fill will be the Commission presidency. But European Council President Donald Tusk wants to reach an agreement on the whole package, including all the key posts, reflecting not only the political weight of the families after the elections but also the geographic, gender and demographic balance (large and small countries).

He wants to wrap up a deal by the 20-21 June summit, although this could prove a tall order.

If everything goes well, the new European Parliament could vote on the EU leaders’ choice for Commission chief at the plenary session on 15-18 July.

The Parliament’s president and vice-presidents will already be decided at the first plenary session starting on 2 July.

On Tuesday (28 May), the European Council will start discussing potential candidates for the top jobs and EPP leaders are expected to back Weber. But having a majority of the European Council against him (only a third of the leaders belong to the centre-right), his candidacy will fail soon, as one source explained.

Borissov: Horsetrading for the EU top jobs has started

In his usual straightforward manner, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has disclosed that French President Emmanuel Macron has consulted him this week to prepare the summit on 28 May when the future EU top jobs will be discussed for the first time.

Still, relevant questions remain unanswered, like who will negotiate the posts on behalf of the EPP? Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has been appointed to represent the Socialist political family in the process.

It also remains to be seen how Macron will play his cards.

First approach

Sources close to Tusk lowered the expectations for the summit on Tuesday. The preliminary discussion will serve to scope out potential names and to extend a mandate for Tusk to consult with the capitals and the EPP itself, if it indeed wins the elections.

If the centre-right family retains the EU executive, the Socialists and Liberals will fight for the European Council Presidency, although the positions of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and even the Parliament President will be also on the menu.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is seen as the frontrunner for the European Council. Although he said he is not a candidate, his ambitions are an ‘open secret’ in Brussels.

But if the final results of the European elections confirm the exit polls in the Netherlands, Rutte may find difficult to succeed Tusk. Another liberal, Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, a close ally of Macron, could find some supporters and may stand a slim chance.

Dutch vote boosts chances of ‘progressive alliance’ in EU Parliament

The Capitals brings you the latest news from across Europe, through on-the-ground reporting by EURACTIV’s media network. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

Before reading The Capitals today, take a look at our EURACTIV network stories about the …

If the Socialists are the winners in the Netherlands, as the exit polls indicated on Thursday, their lead candidate, Dutchman Frans Timmermans, would stand a better chance at grabbing one of the top posts. The former Dutch foreign affairs minister is floated as the next High Representative.

A potential rival for the same post could be Spanish foreign minister and former EU Parliament president, Josep Borrell. The Spanish socialists are expected to confirm their ascending path on Sunday with another victory in the European elections.

If the Socialists score well on Sunday, especially compared with the liberals, that would pave the way for their members to succeed Tusk. The names put forward so far are Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, the Maltese Joseph Muscat, and the former Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Why Manfred Weber will probably not be elected

It is unlikely that Manfred Weber will become President of the European Commission. This is also because Germany often acts as a ‘blocker’. Gerd Appenzeller, from EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel, gives his opinion.

For some, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, remains as an option both the European Council and the Commission. The ‘anchor of stability’ of Europe, as she is described, would fit for the unstable period Europe faces.

But despite she always mentions Europe as the defining issue of her legacy, she has ruled out any job in Brussels in a too sincere manner for those who follow the German chancellor.

Weidmann remains

The ECB Presidency should remain outside of the political game, as experience and solid credentials must triumph over other considerations, experts say. But the ECB presidency is precisely one of the most desired posts, if not the crown jewel of the musical chairs.

The race to succeed Mario Draghi in November remains open. The president of the German Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, seen as the favourite until last summer, has not been ruled out in Frankfurt, a source confirmed.

The other candidates frequently mentioned are the governor of the Bank of France, François Villeroy de Galhau, and two Finns with experience in the ECB, the governor of the Bank of Finland, Olli Rehn, and Erkki Liikanen.

Some in the ECB believes that Liikanen has more possibilities than Rehn. But the latter, who was a Commissioner under Barroso, is also considered for other posts.

The EU Game of Thrones explained

This week’s European parliamentary elections will launch a scramble for the continent’s top leadership jobs, but won’t decide the winners. Here is a guide to the horsetrading. 

The uncertainty about which party will win the elections, the potential vetoes between parties and factions, and the ‘sudoku’ to balance all the relevant factors complicates all guesswork. But some candidates appear to face an uphill battle to convince some member states.

Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė, a candidate with a good profile on paper (small country, euro area member, EU and executive experience, woman) is a ‘no-go’ for Central and Eastern member states, said an EU source.

Vestager ranked best EU Commissioner, favourite to succeed Juncker

EU antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is the clear favourite to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as the next President of the European Commission, according to the results of a Europe-wide online survey unveiled today (19 February).

Other likeable candidates, including Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, were barely mentioned by the sources consulted. The same for Benoit Coeure, currently a member of the ECB’s Executive Council, to take over as ECB chief. That could play in their favour in a later phase, as their profiles could come up as a potential compromise.

More noise but no harm

Despite the expected increase of Eurosceptic and national-populist forces, which could surpass one-fourth of the 751 seat-chamber, nobody believes that these parties will determine to a large extent the nomination process.

EU officials and diplomats agree that a clearly pro-European majority will continue to dominate the European Parliament. When it comes to the European Council, the other key player in the nomination process, Tusk said that while consensus is the optimal outcome, he would put the names to a vote if needed to reach the necessary qualified majority.

Still, Eurosceptics are expected to make significant noises next autumn during the hearings with the candidates to take over the Commission’s portfolios. The new Commission is expected to take office in November.

“The designated commissioners better come prepared because, for the first time, there will be proper opposition,” a diplomat said.

But a European source said national populists “might be loud but in the end, they will be harmless”.

AS IT HAPPENED: The summit that decided on EU top jobs

EU leaders meet in Brussels 20-21 June to try and decide who should get the top institution jobs. Stay tuned here for the main developments from the summit.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters