Following weeks of political wrangling and negotiations between EU leaders following the European Parliamentary elections in May, a new ‘package’ of candidates for the EU’s top jobs have finally been announced. This includes the first woman nominated to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission (the ‘executive branch’ of the EU).
This announcement comes after sharp geopolitical divides between EU member states were highlighted during negotiations on who would lead the European Union for its next 5 year term (2019-2024). The recent Parliamentary elections saw the decline of Europe’s major political families.The centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats both lost seats to the pro-EU Liberal and Green parties and populist, anti-establishment groups such as the UK’s Brexit Party and France’s National Rally. As such, neither lead candidate (‘Spitzenkandidaten’) from these parties were able to form the parliamentary majority needed to be elected as EU Commission President.
Candidate Manfred Weber (EPP, Germany) was criticized by France’s President Macron and other Liberal figures for running to lead the EU despite having never held a government post. Meanwhile, the appointment of Frans Timmermans (S&D, Netherlands) faced fierce opposition from Central/Eastern European governments such as Hungary and Poland for the way he enforced EU rule of law policy while serving as Commission Vice President under Mr. Juncker.
The current list of confirmed candidates likely comes as a compromise package following three days of intense, politically-charged negotiations between EU leaders that form the European Council (of which outgoing PM Theresa May said she would play a ‘constructive role’). The choices have to take account of the elections and achieve an acceptable balance regarding large and small states, gender, geography and political grouping. Indeed, President Macron himself stressed the need to nominate two men and two women for the four key posts. Similarly, outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk praised today’s deal for achieving what he referred to as a ‘perfect gender balance’.
The nominees are as follows:
President of the European Commission – Ursula von der Leyen (Germany, centre-right)
A doctor by profession, Ms von der Leyen currently serves as the German Minister of Defence. Seen as a close ally of Angela Merkel, she was previously considered as a front-runner to replace her as German Chancellor, or alternatively the next leader of NATO. If her nomination is confirmed by the European Parliament, she will take office as the first female Commission President and the first German to hold that office in nearly half a century (following Walter Hallstein, the first Commission chief of the Coal and Steel Community which preceded the EU). Ms von der Leyen will be responsible for proposing and enforcing EU laws, handling trade deals (with Brexit as a continuing issue for her administration) and representing the organisation on the world stage. However, she has had a fair share of controversy at home. Ms von der Leyen is often blamed for the continued stagnation of the German military in recent years, and she has also faced claims of incompetence and nepotism within her department.
President of the European Council – Charles Michel (Belgium, liberal)
Mr Michel currently serves as caretaker Prime Minister of Belgium, following his resignation late last year, after his right-wing coalition partners refused to support Belgium’s signing of the UN Global Compact for Migration. As President of the European Council (the grouping of national leaders from all EU member states, who will vote on his nomination), he will chair EU summits and set the broad policy for the Union moving forward, while the Commission deals with the specific laws and treaties.
EU High Representative for Foreign Policy – Josep Borrell (Spain, centre-left)
The current Spanish Foreign Minister, Mr Borrell will be in charge of the EU External Action Service (EEAS), dealing with major challenges such as Iran’s nuclear programme, Kosovo and EU interventions in Africa.
President of the European Central Bank – Christine Lagarde (France, centre-right)
Best known internationally as Director of the International Monetary Fund, Ms Lagarde was previously speculated to be in the running for Commission President before the role went to Ursula von der Leyen. She will take over from current ECB President Mario Draghi, who was famous for steering the euro during the eurozone crisis and managing Greece’s severe debt problems. The bank has enormous influence, despite continuing concern about the euro. Ms Lagarde is likely a consolation prize for President Macron, so he could have a French national serving in a top EU post after his own choice for Commission chief (Michel Barnier, current EU Brexit negotiator) was rejected.
All the nominees for these positions will be voted on by various EU institutions within the next few weeks, while the decision of who will be the next President of the European Parliament will be taken by MEP’s on Wednesday. Although these individuals are now considered the primary frontrunners for their respective offices, they may still face some challenges during their confirmation periods. Ms von der Leyen in particular is considered by some to be a highly controversial candidate, given that her name was on neither the official nor the speculative lists of candidates for the EU’s executive office since she never campaigned herself in the recent elections. Furthermore, her position as a staunch centre-right Europhile (the 3rd in a row for Commission President) means that she is unlikely to be seen as a bold, dynamic choice by anyone outside the EPP in terms of policy.
As such, this list should be considered provisional and is subject to change since the voting intentions of MEPs and others may still be in flux. However, it is still a great improvement from the seemingly unbreakable deadlock faced by EU leaders over the weekend, as they clashed with the future direction of the bloc hanging in the balance.