Sat 17 August 2019

Manfred Weber, Frans Timmermans, Margrete Vestager, Guy Verhofstadt, Michel Barnier, Mark Rutte : Who will be the next President of the EU Commission?

European Election Special

Although of little interest to most people, the President of the European Commission holds a series of important cards in their hands throughout his or her 5-years term. As voters elected 751 MEPs last week, few knew their choice would probably have an impact on the race to choose Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor.

The European Commission is in charge of enforcing the treaties, safeguarding European values – not least in Hungary of Poland, as well as proposing and applying European laws (directives).

Not a federal President, but more than a technocratic decision-maker, he or she will have their work cut out over the next five years.

This said, anything could happen, because the ultimate decision-makers will be the heads of state and government and especially the Franco-German ones.

They must address attempts to overrule democracy and liberal values in the East, maintain the Union and the strong cooperation in the West. Also, to find solutions to the still ongoing refugee crisis, spread Europe’s voice on the global scene in front of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi or Jair Bolsonaro and incidentally, sort out Brexit.

Jean-Claude Juncker – Kremlin Photo

Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, is retiring after a term filled with many challenges, from the refugee crisis that started in 2015 to Brexit. In 2014, Mr Juncker, then candidate (Spitzenkandidat) for the European Popular Party (centre right), was eventually chosen by heads of state and government.

The nomination of the EU Commission President is an intense political and diplomatic game. Like the Eurovision song contest, countries make alliances and sometimes, the winner may not be the person who performed the best but someone whose tactics and shenanigans were the most effective.

So, who will be the final winner this time? Care will be taken to ensure that the candidate represents the balance of power in the EU and gender, nationality, politics and the make up of the European Parliament are all key considerations.

Political affiliation: it will be a centrist (in European standards)

For the first time since 1979, the traditional Grand Coalition in the European Parliament, formed by social democrats and Christian democrats, doesn’t have enough seats to seize an overall majority.

To form a stable majority, this leaves only option: to work with Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) centrists. This gives French President, Emmanuel Macron tremendous power, after good polls at home.

Comparatively, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) has suffered from major losses and the centre right, European People’s Party, (PPE) has been defeated in many countries including: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and in Scandinavia. This means Merkel’s pick, Manfred Weber, leader of the PPE could face resistance from Paris and other capitals that consider the PPE has lost the election and should not therefore be granted the EU Commission.

“Macron will probably be the kingmaker in this European Game of Thrones and he could also be Merkel’s kingslayer after a decade of German hegemony in Brussels”


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Who will Macron chose? Maybe someone French. France, the second biggest Member State has not held any major EU function since Jacques Delors in 1995. However, he will need the help of European social democrats to form a majority, but French Socialists have not particularly shined in the recent elections.

The nomination of the EU Commission President is an intense political and diplomatic game.

They only managed 6% of the vote, just enough to get their MEPs into Parliament. But, they are likely to want to push for one of their own candidates, especially as the Party of European Socialists (PSE) made big gains in Spain, Portugal and surprisingly in Netherlands. Frans Timmermans, PSE and Dutch Labour Party leader, is hopeful that the surprise result he created in Netherlands could be repeated in Brussels.

Someone else who could be on the ticket is Dutch PM, Mark Rutte. In office since 2010, this could be his well deserved golden exit after beating the far right at home. As leader of the main Dutch centre right party, the Party or Freedom (PVV), he could be a frontrunner for the top job.

By European standards, there is not a huge difference between Frans Timmermans and his Prime Minister Mark Rutte. They are both centralists, albeit one from the left and the other from the right.

Geographical origins: Northern or Eastern Europe

Dalia Grybauskait Author: Kapeksas

Do you know Dalia Grybauskaitė? Probably not, but the Lithuanian President, who has been in office since 2009, is leaving on July 12th. She sees herself as the perfect successor to Juncker…or Donald Tusk. Charismatic, respected and a Brussels insider, she was previously European Commission until 2004, Dalia could represent an alternative with potentially wide consensus.

Dalia could also be a subliminal challenge to Putin and his European Trojan Horse, Victor Orban.

Gender: It could be a woman

Margrethe Vestager, European
Commissioner for Competition
Source: Friends of Europe Flickr

And why not a woman? It is high time a woman held this post. A favourite to change is Margrete Vestager, Danish, European Commissioner for Competition and former leader of the Radikale Venstre (social liberals).

She is well-known for her fight against GAFAs and for imposing large fines on US and Chinese companies. As a moderate and from the North of Europe, she is a viable candidate, the exact opposite of Matteo Salvini or Viktor Orban.

 Helle Thorning-Schmidt,
Danish Social Democrats’ party leader
Source: Johannes Jansson

Another Danish national could be on the short list. She is former PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (PSE) whose party is about to seize power after elections next June 5th. She has often been seen in Brussels, stating that she is ‘available’. She could be offered the job – but this will effectively depend on Macron.

The final pick: Vestager, Barnier or Timmermans?

There are many potential candidates, but only one will be eventually chosen. Who will he or she be? Let’s look at the front-runners:

  • Margrete Vestager: a woman, ALDE leader, European Commissioner, from the North of Europe. If Timmermans’ bid fails, she could be the social democrats pick, thus beating Manfred Weber or any centre right candidate. Problem: her country is not a member of the Eurozone.
  • Michel Barnier: experienced, well-known (Brexit helped), European special negotiator and former French Foreign Affairs Minister, from France. He is a moderate and he could be Macron’s pick if Vestager fails to convince him. He has the support of Central and Eastern countries and would be a perfect rebuke to British Euroscepticism. Problem: he is a bit old (68) and isn’t a symbol of the fresh and modern politics Macron would like to spread across Europe. Second problem: he is a member of the PPE whose official candidate is still Manfred Weber. For now.
  • Frans Timmermans: experienced, moderate and from Netherlands. His CV appears to be good enough to make the short list. Yet, the PSE leader struggles to convince inside his own group – the French Socialists have announced they would not support him. Also, his party has been heavily defeated in key countries (Germany, France, Italy, the UK) and has suffered defections (Romanian PSD could be expelled while Hungarian Democratic Coalition have announced they will join the ALDE group). At the end of the day there is nothing very exciting about Frans Timmermans.

This said, anything could happen, because the ultimate decision-makers will be the heads of state and government and especially the Franco-German ones. With both leaders defeated at home (politically or electorally), and with the rise of far right parties, they could be tempted to renew Europe with a fresh figure.

To succeed, he or she will need to be backed by the PSE, the PPE, ALDE and… the Greens. This leaves the door wide opened for a liberal Green as a result for their good polls and their alliance with ALDE. We shall see.

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