Friday

14th May 2021

Analysis

As candidates debate, more names surface for EU top jobs

As the lead candidates for the European political alliances prepare for their final debate on Wednesday night (15 May) ahead of the European elections next week, Brussels is ripe with speculation over the new leadership of the EU institutions.

The European parliament's goal is that the lead candidate who can master a coalition in the assembly after the election, should be nominated to the presidency of the EU commission - previously a result of months-long horse-trading behind closed doors among EU leaders.

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But EU heads of government have been cold to the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, perceiving it more as an attempt by the parliament to grab power from national leaders, rather than - as the parliament argues - making the selection of people for the EU's most senior job more democratic.

Manfred Weber, the Bavarian lead candidate for the largest political alliance, the centre-right European People's Party will face off against Frans Timmermans, the Dutch vice-president of the commission and Socialist & Democrat (S&D) candidate, the liberal competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager from Denmark, the Green German politician Ska Keller, Czech conservative Jan Zahradil and Spanish-Belgian Nico Cue from the far left.

However, in Brussels, other names of possible candidates have surfaced from the "fall-back" option of EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to World Bank top official Kristalina Georgieva.

Trio plus one package

The EU's trio of top jobs are agreed in package, with the EU Commission, EU Council and European Parliament presidencies all to be decided later in the year. Complicating matters further, the European Central Bank (ECB) governor will also have to be chosen, a major tussle between Germany and France.

The parliament, which has to formally elect the next EU commission president, has said it would not accept any nominee who was not a lead candidate during the campaign - while the EU leaders insisted there is no 'automaticity' between the election result and their choice for the position.

The issue is not only crucial in terms of a political battle between the parliament and national leaders, but also because its outcome will shape the next commission - the EU's ultimate body for legislative proposals and monitoring implementation - at a time when the EU is under increasing pressure from inside by nationalist-populists, and outside from China, Russia and US president Donald Trump's America.

Changing calculations

The EPP is, according to the polls, set to remain the largest party in the parliament, but will lose seats due to far-right populists gaining momentum, and also because Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's party, Fidesz is likely to leave the EPP after the elections, taking with him some 14-15 MEPs.

The parliament's latest projection - based on existing political groups - puts the EPP at 180 seats (down from 217) including the Fidesz members.

According to the EP projection the Socialist & Democrats group are expected to secure 149 seats, the liberal Alde group 76 seats, the Greens 57 seats, the far-left with 46 seats. Conservatives are polling at 66 seats, while the far-right and populist groups are at 62 and 45 possible seats.

The liberals, who plan to set up a broader alliance after the elections including French president Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party, could end up with a higher number seats in the 751-member parliament.

Meanwhile, the UK's participation in the election has upset the earlier calculus, that the EPP will be in a clear position to lead the next parliamentary majority, with possibly socialists, liberals or maybe even the Greens as allies.

But any seats for the UK's Conservatives will not help the EPP, because the Tories have left the group in 2014. However, the Labour MEPs will be added to the S&D group, piling more pressure on the EPP, and raising doubts whether the centre-right will be able to dominate the coalition-building efforts after the vote.

The UK's participation has also changed the calculations of leaders, as party politics takes centre stage in deciding on the next Brussels top positions, an EU source said.

EU council president Donald Tusk - whose job is also up for grabs - last week at the Sibiu summit called for an extraordinary meeting of EU leaders two days after the European elections, on 28 May, for national leaders to have a discussion on whom to nominate for top jobs.

Tusk also signalled to EU leaders he will not be afraid to call for a vote on the EU commission president to replace Jean-Claude Juncker at a regular summit of EU leaders in June.

Nominating the commission president does not require unanimity among member states, although a consensus is always preferred.

It could mean that EU leaders avoid having to deal with the lead candidates at the 28 May summit, arguing that the election did not yield to clear results, and scrap the Spitzenkandidaten process.

According to this scenario, the leaders would use June to find a compromise figure, but choosing the person also depends on the other senior positions.

New names

Following Tusk's outline of his preferred scenario at Sibiu, leaders did not comment on the process, according to a source familiar with the discussion - which could signal that other leaders, especially liberal ones, now see a chance to use the Spitzenkandidaten process to gain influence in determining the commission presidency.

"It [decisions] should reflect geographical balance, like demography, both large and smaller countries represented in the highest positions in the EU," Tusk said after the Sibiu summit, adding gender and political balance will be respected as well.

Weber himself only sparks mild enthusiasm among EPP leaders, who total nine of the 28-member European Council, which nominates the commission president. Orban has already withdrawn his support for the Bavarian.

While those close to Weber argue that he has been constantly underestimated, critics point to his lack of executive experience and the fact that Germany's dominant power in the EU should not also be represented in the bloc's executive's presidency.

The liberals have not embraced the Spitzenkandidaten process so far, with Macron being an outspoken critic of the lead candidate idea. The liberals put forward a team of candidates rather than one candidate.

One of them, commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who will debate on Wednesday night, is well-liked and respected in Brussels and beyond for having cracked down on US firms breaking EU competition rules, and going after tax deals between member states and large companies.

The name of the World Bank's chief executive officer, Kristalina Georgieva, a former EU commissioner, has also entered discussions in Brussels.

"She is a well-respected in Brussels, she has good connections with Russia and the US, understands finances, and is a woman - but I don't think this position will go Bulgaria," an EU source said.

Another female leader from eastern Europe, who is well-liked for her take-no-prisoners style, is Lithuania's president Dalia Grybauskaite, whose term will end later this year. Both she and Georgieva are EPP members.

Another EU source said that commission vice-president for the euro, Valdis Dombrovskis, a Latvian who was a runner up to Tusk five years ago, is also toying with the idea of running for a senior post.

The EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has been one of the main fall-back options so far rumoured in Brussels if the Spitzenkandidaten process dies in the European Council.

But according to EU sources, Barnier lost some enthusiasm from EU leaders when, at the April EU summit on a Brexit extension, he allied himself too closely to fellow Frenchman Macron's position on not granting a long extension.

EU leaders to have first talk on bloc's next top jobs

The discussion in Sibiu will focus on the 'how', rather than the 'who', on a successor to Jean-Claude Juncker. EU leaders will also have to decide on Donald Tusk's successor, the next EU's foreign affairs chief, and ECB president.

Analysis

Sibiu: EU leaders prepare post-Brexit show of unity

With the European elections just three weeks away, the EU-27 will try to set the agenda for the next years for the EU institutions. But with persisting divisions on key issues, unity will be an achievement in itself.

Magazine

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.

EU's centre-right make Weber their man to replace Juncker

The centre-right EPP party's congress wanted to show unity - but divisions remain after the political alliance lined up behind Germany's Manfred Weber as their 'Spitzenkandidat' ahead of next year's European election.

Timmermans calls for left-wing coalition at debate

The centre-right's Manfred Weber got most of the heat at the EU Commission presidential candidates' final debate before the European elections, while Frans Timmermans reached out to a possible coalition partners - piling more pressure on Weber's EPP.

Agenda

EU votes on future leaders This WEEK

The political spotlight switches from Brussels to national capitals and regions this week as Europe gears up for the start of European Parliament elections on Thursday

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