26th Nov 2022


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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Who are the EU's new leaders?

Three out of the four people to lead the EU institutions in Brussels for the next five years were selected Tuesday, but none are well-known outside their own countries. The fourth, the European Parliament president, is to be chosen Wednesday.

German minister presidency plan upsets MEPs

While EU leaders seem to converge around German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president, the European Parliament is not happy with the emerging agreement on top jobs.

EU leaders nominate first female EU commission chief

An ally of Angela Merkel, the female Germany defence minister has been nominated by EU leaders for the commission top job. Ursula von der Leyen still needs to be approved by the EU Parliament, where she will meet some resistance.


The Spitzen process - a coup that was never accepted

It is a divisive 'Brussels bubble' debate: whether to give the European Parliament more of a say on who becomes the next European Commission president. But the issue goes right to the heart of European integration.

Von der Leyen's EU vote far from sure

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.

Swedish EU presidency: 'Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine'

Ukraine and a looming economic recession is set to dominate the upcoming Swedish EU presidency, which takes over at the start of next year. Sweden's ambassador to the EU, Lars Danielsson, laid out some of its priorities.

News in Brief

  1. 'Pro-Kremlin group' in EU Parliament cyberattack
  2. Ukraine will decide on any peace talks, Borrell says
  3. Germany blocks sale of chip factory to Chinese subsidiary
  4. Strikes and protests over cost-of-living grip Greece, Belgium
  5. Liberal MEPs want Musk quizzed in parliament
  6. Bulgarian policeman shot dead at Turkish border
  7. 89 people allowed to disembark in Italy, aid group says
  8. UN chief tells world: Cooperate on climate or perish

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. Sweden says 'no' to EU asylum relocation pledges
  2. The 'proof' problem with EU sanctions — and how to fix it
  3. The EU gas cap: will the bottle ever be 'uncorked'?
  4. Enough talk, only rights can eliminate patriarchal violence
  5. Swedish EU presidency: 'Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine'
  6. EU Commission to keep Hungary's EU funds in limbo
  7. 'No substance' price ceiling for gas leaves everyone disgruntled
  8. Paying consumers who save most energy could tame gas prices

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  6. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us