31 May 2019

Following last week’s European elections, an EU summit was held on Tuesday 28 May to discuss the candidates for the top EU jobs for the next five years. Positions at stake include the Presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and European Central Bank, and the EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs. Of particular importance is the selection process for Commission President, which is still not settled and will have a knock-on effect onto the other jobs. Overall, the selection of top jobs is likely to be a protracted and unwieldy process.

Will the Spitzenkandidat process be used?

The ‘Spitzenkandidat’ process was first used in 2014, despite being contested by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. According to this process, each pan-European political grouping nominates a leading candidate. The lead candidate of the group with the greatest number of MEPs is automatically nominated for Commission President by the European Council, and then has to be approved by a majority of MEPs in the European Parliament and a qualified majority of the Council (55% of member states, representing at least 65% of the EU’s total population).

However, the Spitzenkandidat process itself is not codified in EU law. It is based on Article 17(7) of the Lisbon Treaty, which simply states that the Council should propose a candidate to the European Parliament after “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations.” Although the Spitzenkandidat process was envisaged as a way to democratise the post of European Commission President, this is undermined in practice by the lack of name recognition for any of the top candidates. For example, the Spitzenkandidat for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, is only known by 26% of Germans – despite being German himself. An introduction of transnational lists in European elections next time might pave the way for a more accountable process that would fulfil the original Spitzenkandidat process aim.

If the Spitzenkandidat process is followed, Manfred Weber would be proposed as the candidate for Commission Presidency, after the EPP won the most seats in the European elections, and elected 180 MEPs. This is a decline for the EPP compared to 2014, when they elected 222 MEPs. Weber is a German MEP from the Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). However, unlike Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014, Weber has little cross-party support – he is seen as a relative right-winger by EPP standards, and is also believed to lack sufficient political experience. Thus, Weber’s prospects might be killed off by the Council or the Parliament. German Chancellor Angela Merkel still defended Weber on the Tuesday summit, as it would be politically difficult for her not to do so, but this will not suffice to ensure his nomination.

The chances of the Spitzenkandidat being used arguably decreased after Weber was elected EPP Spitzenkandidat ahead of his competitor, ex-Finnish Prime Minister Alex Stubb – seen as a more unifying figure. One alternative candidate might be Frans Timmermans, current Commission Vice President and the Spitzenkandidat for the Alliance of Socialist and Democrats (S&D), which came second overall with 153 MEPs. Timmermans’ profile was boosted after his Dutch Labour Party won the European election in the Netherlands, but it is difficult to see how he could win the presidential nomination when the S&D finished second. Timmermans is also likely to be strongly opposed by Hungary and Poland, due to his hardline stance on violations of the rule of law by member states.

The Spitzenkandidat process also faces opposition from a number of European figures. European Council President Donald Tusk yesterday repeated that national leaders will not be bound by the Spitzenkandidat process. French President Emmanuel Macron was also sceptical, saying that candidates for top EU jobs need “experience at the highest governmental level or European Commission level” – interpreted as a thinly-veiled criticism of Weber. Macron has talked up the prospects of fellow Frenchman Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, describing him as “a man who has great qualities.” Barnier is respected in EU circles for his handling of Brexit, and has long been talked up as a potential alternative for the role of Commission President. As a member of the EPP, his appointment would also preserve the spirit of Article 17(7) of the Lisbon Treaty.

The ALDE group in the European Parliament has also opposed the process, having selected a team of candidates instead of a Spitzenkandidat. The group’s leader Guy Verhofstadt has said, “The EPP is pushing hard for the Spitzenkandidaten-system, but unfortunately they killed its legitimacy when they voted against transnational lists,” adding, “For us it is important that the next President of the Commission is representing a broad pro-European majority with a clear programme to renew Europe.”

Given the significant ALDE gains in the European elections – they increased their MEPs from 67 to 102 – it will be very difficult to appoint a candidate without ALDE support. Leading candidates that have emerged as potential choices that ALDE might accept include Danish Competition Commissioner Magrethe Vestager (a member of ALDE), as well as Barnier. Moreover, the body of Commissioners will be chosen for all areas, one from each member state.

How will this affect the other jobs?

Nationality, political affiliation and gender will be factors in the nominations of the other top jobs. Therefore, the choice of Commission President will impact the picks for other jobs. It is likely, for example, that a French-led Commission under Barnier would strengthen the case for a German ECB President to succeed incumbent Mario Draghi. German Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann is seen as Gemany’s strongest candidate. However, a perceived stitch-up by France and Germany would be resisted by other countries, such as the Netherlands and Spain, especially during a period of Franco-German disagreements. The new ECB President will still have to be approved by Germany, making Finland’s Erkki Liikanen, a fiscal conservative , a possible candidate. France’s Francois Villeroy de Galha is also in the running.

The Council President selection process is also uncertain and ultimately depends on finding a geographical and ideological balance between all the top jobs. Angela Merkel has been suggested as an option, but it would be very difficult politically to have the German Chancellor leading the Council. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte constitutes a more plausible option, if he can be persuaded to step down from his domestic position.

The current European Council President Donald Tusk clarified recently that “my intention is for the Council to nominate the new EU leadership in June.” This would mean the Council electing both ECB and Council Presidents, and proposing candidates for Commission President and High Representative, during its meeting on 20–21 June. These dates will most probably not see the final selection, since the divisiveness of procedure and shifting intra-group dynamics seem likely to delay the selection. The set dates ahead are:

  • July: the European Parliament will vote on the Commission President nominee.
  • 1 November, when the new Commission President, New ECB President and new High Representative take office.
  • 1 December, when the new European Council President takes office.

How could this affect Brexit?

Whoever is appointed Commission President will play a big part in the future of Brexit. This could include requests for further extensions of Article 50 and negotiations over the future relationship. A President Barnier would most likely cleave closely to the approach of Task Force 50 to date; he also adopted a tough approach on an extension in March. Nevertheless, it remains unlikely that a European Commission President would oppose an extension if this risked leading to a No Deal Brexit.