Five jobs on offer
The European Union has to fill five important posts. Of those, the European Council only has complete control of one, that of its own president (to succeed Donald Tusk in December). It is generally understood that candidates for the top job must be either serving or previous heads of government.
The European Council also appoints the next President of the European Central Bank (to succeed Mario Draghi in November), but only after consulting the European Parliament and the national central bank governors of the 19 eurozone states. Moreover, the treaty stipulates that the ECB President must be picked “from among persons of recognised standing and professional experience in monetary or banking matters”. Having been a mere finance minister, therefore, might not qualify: conversely, being Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund might.
The Union’s foreign minister – the so-called ‘High Representative / Vice-President’ – is appointed by the European Council, but with the explicit consent of the President of the European Commission. As part of the incoming Commission, he or she is then subject to a vote of consent by the European Parliament.
Famously, the European Council is also responsible for nominating Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor as President of the Commission. This involves delicate negotiations with the Parliament which is minded to pre-empt the European Council’s nomination by promoting in advance its own Spitzenkandidat. Were Parliament to reject the nominee of the heads of government, the latter have one month to come up with someone more acceptable. A successful candidate needs an absolute majority of the House (that is, 376 MEPs).
No specific criteria are laid down for the job, but it is a tough one, demanding high-level diplomatic and administrative experience as well as political and linguistic skills. A sense of humour helps. It is not necessary, however, to have been a head of government – as the careers of Jean Monnet, Walter Hallstein, Roy Jenkins and Jacques Delors bear witness.
Beyond the reach of the European Council is the presidency of the European Parliament. He or she will be elected in Strasbourg on 3 July by a simple majority of MEPs.
Timing matters. The new Commission is due to take office on 1 November. Election of the college can take place only after the completion of the audition by MEPs of its individual members. Alarmingly, there is already some lazy talk in Brussels of a possible delay to the start of the new regime on the grounds that the appointments are going to be difficult. The EU enjoyed a rare boost to its democratic legitimacy when turnout at the Parliamentary elections in May rocketed from 42% to 51%. Nothing would squander that popular success more absolutely than a lengthy squabble into the autumn about jobs for the boys.
Everyone wants to reach a better balance among the five top jobs than we have at present, in which there are three Italians, three members of the European People’s Party (EPP), and only one woman. Mr Tusk has made a lot of the need to see the appointments as a package where there is fair play among party, gender, region and nationality. MEPs can be influenced by the shape of the deal emerging at the level of the European Council, but they should not be swayed into voting for a parliamentary president who would not serve the House well. Neither can they delay the election of their president if the European Council dithers at its scheduled meeting on 20-21 June.
So should it really be so difficult to agree on the package? On the face of it, the European Council has an easier job than in 2014 when the Parliament united behind Mr Juncker immediately after the elections, leaving the heads of government with no real choice in the matter.
This time, MEPs disagree among themselves. Both the EPP and the social democrats (S&D) lost support at the election, leaving neither of their Spitzenkanditaten, Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, with a moral claim on the top job. The two largest groups cannot expect to run the Parliament together as they used to. For the first time since direct elections were introduced in 1979, the EPP and S&D will not command an overall majority of the House.
Mr Weber’s unfortunate liaison with Viktor Orban does not help his conservative cause. Mr Timmermans is personally qualified for any number of top jobs, but his elevation to the presidency is unlikely. He has made enemies in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania in his present Commission role overseeing the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Even if Frans Timmermans were to secure the nomination from the European Council, where socialists are scarce, his election by the Parliament would be far from certain.
Better next time
Moreover, neither Spitzenkandidat has the wholehearted backing of his own prime minister. Mr Timmermans has to contend with Mark Rutte, a Liberal, who dislikes the European Parliament’s power grab against the European Council.
Somewhat belatedly, Chancellor Merkel, ever the EPP loyalist, has swung behind the Spitzenkandidat process, but she is clearly unconvinced that Mr Weber has all the qualifications to lead the Commission. She seems now more inclined to support President Macron in his efforts to reform the electoral process by introducing transnational lists for a portion of the Parliament in time for 2024 – a reform that would clearly confer popular legitimation on the champions of truly federal political parties.
The chances grow for Margrete Vestager, who would be the first female President of the Commission and the first Liberal for forty years. The ALDE group, led by Guy Verhofstadt, along with Emmanuel Macron, eschewed the Spitzenkandidat process in protest at the EPP’s rejection of transnational lists. Since the election, however, the Vestager star has risen confidently. As a successful and independent-minded Commissioner, and former deputy prime minister of Denmark, she is clearly qualified to lead the college. She would be a popular choice.
Other choices are available. Michel Barnier seems keen, once liberated from Brexit. Maros Sefcovic wants the foreign job. Dalia Grybauskaite is due to stand down as President of Lithuania in July. Lars Lokke Rasmussen may be an ex-prime minister by the weekend. Alexis Tspiras may be at a loose end shortly. Enda Kenny and Helle Thorning-Schmidt could be recalled for duty. There are always wild cards too.
Donald Tusk is consulting the three main party groups. He will also talk to the Greens who did very well at the election and are a rising force. Furthermore, outwith the mainstream parties are the Italian and Polish prime ministers, as well as Theresa May who will do her best to represent the UK at the June meeting. The British certainly have a vested interest in the choice of the new EU leadership as they begin to tackle the negotiation of their long-term association agreement.
With great foresight, the Lisbon treaty provides for the European Council to take all these decisions on appointments by qualified majority vote – meaning 21 of the states representing 65% of the population. David Cameron and Viktor Orban were indeed outvoted in opposing Mr Juncker’s nomination in 2014. They were right to have been so. Voting is a good way to fill a vacancy, and the surest way to provide the European Union with the calibre of leadership it has grown to deserve.
This article was first published by the European Policy Centre (EPC). More information about the EPC can be found at www.epc.eu.