Liberals risk coming out of EU summit empty-handed

Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt [R] is not an active MEP [European Parliament]

Jean-Claude Juncker and Guy Verhofstadt. [European Parliament]

The European Liberals, ALDE, will lose a considerable number of influential EU positions, as a deal handing out the top jobs takes further shape at Wednesday’s EU summit (16 July).

Four countries have a liberal head of state: Luxembourg, Slovenia, Estonia and the Netherlands. Luxembourg is also the native country of the newly elected Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The number of liberal commissioners in Juncker’s new executive could halve from eight to four. The last Commission had liberal politicians in charge of prominent portfolios like trade (Karel De Gucht, Belgium) or economic and monetary affairs (Olli Rehn, Finland).

Media reports in the Netherlands have suggested the socialist finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, is the frontrunner to be the Netherlands’ commissioner. Dijsselbloem currently holds the presidency of the Eurogroup and has the credentials to get a decent portfolio.

Estonia and Slovenia could nominate a liberal commissioner and reports on the Swedish nomination have suggested that the incumbent commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, would extend her stay in Brussels.

So far, the political family has also been shut out of getting other top positions.

Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, was mentioned as a potential contender to succeed Herman Van Rompuy. But reports have suggested the race is now between the Polish PM, Donald Tusk (centre right, EPP), and the Danish PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (socialist, PES party).

‘Would be stupid’ to shut out liberals

“What is important is that we are able to find a compromise candidate. There are different names. For me, it is important that women are represented, that political parties are represented and that new countries are represented,” said Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel.

Asked by EURACTIV whether he expected a vice-president portfolio for a liberal commissioner, Bettel said: “Please, don’t ask me about minimums. I am not at the souk [marketplace] to buy a carpet.”

“I think it would be stupid not to give an important portfolio to a liberal,” he added.

Taavi Rõivas, the Estonian prime minister and youngest member of the EU heads of state and government, said: “I do think that the liberal commissioners should have important positions in the Commission, clearly. Liberals have been supporting the grand coalition in Parliament and are sending very strong candidates.”

One of those candidates is the former prime minister of Estonia, Andrus Ansip, who resigned in March, this year. “I expect him to give a liberal voice [to the EU’s policy] as well,” said Rõivas about his fellow countryman.

Return on investment?

Jean-Claude Juncker was elected in Strasbourg on Tuesday (15 July) by a coalition of the centre of the political spectrum. The liberals voted en bloc for the Luxembourger.

“Juncker wouldn’t have been elected without the liberal votes,” said Bettel. “But we have five more years to work with the European Parliament. You also have to find a majority in the different representations at the different levels.”

“We wanted to get hard commitments [on the top jobs] in return, but didn’t succeed,” a source close to the liberal leadership in Parliament told EURACTIV. “We got commitments on the programme, like a strong Fiscal Compact or on ensuring the community method in the Commission’s workings.”

“We did our part of the deal, and now it is only decent [of Juncker] to honour his,” the source said.

Wait-and-see attitude

While centre right and socialist leaders have expressed their preferences off and on camera in previous days, the European liberals seem to take a more wait-and-see attitude.

At their pre-summit, ahead of the EU leaders’ talks in Brussels on Wednesday (16 July), the figurehead of the liberals in Europe, Guy Verhofstadt, was not present. The heads of state who were, remained tightlipped.

“We will see first of all what the overall picture will be. Then we can talk names,” said Rõivas.

One job that could serve as a consolation prize for the liberals, is the Eurogroup presidency. “It is our core business,” the above-mentioned source stressed. “We’ll pay extra attention to it, obviously, and it is a key role.”

The President of the Commission is elected by the Parliament by a majority of its members, on a proposal of the European Council acting by qualified majority. The choice of the candidate for the Presidency of the Commission should take account of the results of the elections in the European Parliament.

In consultation with the President-elect, the Council then adopts the list of the other members of the Commission. These people are chosen on the basis of suggestions made by the governments. The Commission is subject, as a body, to a vote of approval of the European Parliament. The College of Commissioners is then formally appointed by the European Council acting by qualified majority.

>>Read our LinksDossier EU Top Jobs: Who is next? and topic page EU Top Jobs

  • 16 July: EU Summit dinner between heads of state in Brussels
  • September 2014: Hearings of the commissioners in the European Parliament
  • 1 November 2014: target date for the EU Commission to take office

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