23rd Feb 2024


EU top jobs: winners, losers, and institutional battles

  • Ursula von der Leyen, nominated to lead the EU commission, listens to EPP group leader Manfred Weber in the parliament of Wednesday (Photo: European Parliament)

It was quite the sight as Manfred Weber, the Bavarian conservative politician, ushered in Ursula von der Leyen - fellow German conservative politician - to the European Parliament on Wednesday (3 July).

Europe has only learned von der Leyen's name some 12 hours before, when EU leaders decided to nominate her for the presidency of the EU commission - a job Weber had been campaigning for over six months across Europe.

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It symbolised what went wrong with the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, a concept pushed by the European parliament - that the winner of the European elections should automatically be given the commission presidency.

The effort to put the parliament at the centre of the haggling for the commission presidency also introduced a strong party political aspect to the national leaders' discussions at the three-day summit which complicated matters.

Party allegiances made compromises among leaders more difficult, while Europe's party political landscape is too fragmented for any coherent 'liberal' or 'conservative' agenda.

If the Spitzenkandidat system is really here to stay, then it needs fine-tuning, and probably the introduction of transnational lists too.

But an increased party political aspect will remain problematic, because on a European level, votes do not swing that dramatically as sometimes on the national level: the centre-right EPP has been the largest party for decades in the EU, and while their power plus that of the social democrats declines, they will remain the biggest power-brokers for the time being.

Change, which the voters asked for last May, is systemically difficult. But the EPP does need to come to terms with the fact that the changing of the guard is happening.

'Marcon & Orban killed Spitzenkandidate'

French president Emmanuel Macron and Hungary's premier Viktor Orban might have killed the Spitzenkandidaten system, as Weber reportedly told his fellow MEPs, but they had accomplices.

Neither the centre-right EPP leaders who failed to put forward several formidable candidates to choose from at their congress in Helsinki last November, besides Weber and Finland's Alexander Stubb, nor did EU leaders and MEPs support the move to transnational lists. Nobody was fully committed, unless they felt the system secured their own dominance.

Backroom deals are built into the DNA of the system.

Contrary to 2014, the parliament was unable to put forward one candidate either due to the result of the election, which reflected a more evenly spread voter preference.

There is a lot of finger-pointing between between the parliament and the member states, and it remains to be seen if by rejecting von der Leyen, the EU will devolve into an intra-institutional battle for the summer.

It took three extended summits this time to find the new EU leadership - for the journalists and diplomats who stayed up for sometimes 30 hours - but it was quicker than in 2014.

Macron railed against the dysfunctional decision-making at Europe's top leadership after a 20-hour "group therapy" of leaders. Macron said "the spirit and determination to defend the general European interest" was lacking.

The need for reform has become a mantra in Brussels.

But for those reforms, decisions on age-old questions about EU integration have to be made: does it leap forward and move towards a more integrated EU with qualified majority decisions, or reinforce the nation states and loosen the ties?

Until then, haggling by democratically-elected governments, with the parliament's input, will be the most democratic method of decision-making.

Germany is back

Nevertheless, one of the main winners of the summits on top jobs is Macron, who managed to secure the European Central Bank for France, and saw the centre-right EPP, rival to his liberal coalition, fight with itself in the open over the commission presidency.

Macron also has an ally in Belgium's Charles Michel who will be leading the EU Council, and also had his hand in nominating von der Leyen.

Having a German lead the commission was unimaginable until very recently. Especially a defence minister. It was even brought up as an argument against Weber's candidacy last year - that he would be 'unelectable because he is German'.

Some diplomats lamented that German influence in the EU should not be so blatantly made clear, others argued Germany's power in the EU should be made evident by having a German at the helm, and there was no need for sugarcoating.

It is a remarkable acknowledgement of the kind of power Germany wields in Europe, which now has been secured by the last minute nomination of von der Leyen - pending parliament approval. But she will partly owe her position to Macron -creating a very European kind of balance.

'New' Europe loses out

While the Visegrad Four of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are celebrating having blocked the nomination of Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans, central and eastern Europe has lost out with the deal.

No central or eastern European was named for the top jobs. Perhaps most telling is that the leaders from the region went along with that decision.

They also had no candidates, and the likes of Croatian premier Andrej Plenkovic and Latvian PM Krisjanis Karins seemed to have used their political ammunition on objecting to Angerla Merkel's initial Timmermans plan instead of putting someone forward.

Not having a central or eastern European in the top jobs is a bad sign, when there is a perceived divide on some issues between some eastern and western member states, especially as the talks on the long-term EU budget will intensify this year.

The Visegrad Four, despite having membership in four different political families, stuck together, and that signals that the formation can act as a powerful lobby group when necessary, even if they diverge on some key issues, such as relations with Russia.

However, their celebration might come too soon. Von der Leyen is a conservative yes, but with a liberal tilt, who supports same-sex marriage and equal adoption rights for instance.

And they did not get rid of Timmermans either, who will continue as vice-president of the commission, and will most likely be even more determined to rein in those governments, particularly in Warsaw and Budapest, which batter the rule of law.

But the Visegrad standoff, joined by Italy - another country led by populists - against the Timmermans commission also presents another dilemma that leaders have so far avoided, but will need to tackle in the next years.

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Unhappy socialist and liberal MEPs could upset German's bid to be next EU commission chief, making an even worse mess in the top jobs system.

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