The allocation of the EU top jobs is in many ways a surprise casting

How strong or weak, and why, do you see a rosters of EU top jobs? Read few comments.

Ursula Von der Leyen, Candidate for President of the EC. Credit:

Isabel CamisãoAssistant Professor, University of Coimbra

It’s difficult to give you a straightforward answer. Starting by the nominees for President of the ECB and for the HR post, both are well known politicians. Christine Lagarde needs no introduction, particularly considering her current position at Director-General of the IMF (but she also held several ministerial posts including Finances). Her nomination marks the return of a French to the Presidency of the ECB (as Draghi’s predecessor was Jean-Claude Trichet). As for the High Representative, Josep Borrell is also a senior politician with inside knowledge of the EU. Borrell is a former MEP and he is currently the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs. Therefore, he should be prepared to exercise a “similar” job at the European level, as the High Representative is a sort of EU Foreign Minister. Also, his nomination marks the return of a Spanish socialist to the job (even though of course after the Treaty of Lisbon the High Representative has a much more relevant role when comparing to the period in office of Javier Solana). The President of the European Council – Charles Michel – is not exactly a high-profile figure (he was under the spotlights for being one of the youngest Prime Ministers and again when he presented his resignation), but if we consider the previous incumbents (Herman Van Rompuy and Donald Tusk) they too were low profile. Diplomatic skills may be more important to a job that implies being a coalition-builder.  So, the big surprise is of course the nominee for the Presidency of the Commission.

Actually, I have no formed opinion about Ursula Von der Leyen. It seems obvious that her nomination was the way European leaders found to reach an agreement. In any negotiation, when positions became too entrenched no one wants to lose face by yielding. It was clear that neither Manfred Weber nor Frans Timmermans were consensual candidates but they had tough supporters. So, the solution was to find a third candidate. Ursula Von der Leyen emerges unfortunately as the low common denominator. That being said, that does not necessarily mean that she will be a weak President. Let’s not forget that she comes from a big (and clearly powerful) Member-State. It is true that she is not a former Prime Minister (but if we ask who was the most powerful President of the Commission the answer most likely will be Jacques Delors, who likewise was not a former Prime Minister). Also, she cannot claim the enhanced legitimacy introduced by the Spitzenkandidaten process.

Notwithstanding, even though this could be perceived as a step back as regards the EU democratic politics, it doesn’t necessarily hamper her ability to lead and to push forward a strong agenda. I think the big question today is: will she be elected by the EP as President of the Commission? The EP stated more than once that the chamber would reject any candidate not originating from the spitzenkandidaten model. So, probably she’ll not have an easy task convincing the MEPs.

Regarding question that not one of the EU top jobs went to the Central and Eastern Europe in geographical terms Germany is a Central Europe country. My reading is that it was not a result of a clear strategy to leave Eastern Europe countries outside the main jobs; instead it was mainly a result of the circumstances. In a way it can be read as a sort of “collateral damages”. The first piece was the President of the Commission and given the difficulties to reach an agreement on the nominee, all the next pieces were conditioned by this first agreement. We need to remember that the European leaders had to balance different criteria: not only geography, but also size (population) and gender. Also, we need to remember that according to the press, the Visegrad Group backed the nomination of von der Leyen for the Presidency of the Commission (meaning that four of the “new” Europe countries backed the German candidate).

Carine Germond, Professor of European Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

The allocation of the EU top jobs is in many ways a surprise casting. Several newcomers landed the top positions while most of the front runners were cast.

The casting upon which EU leaders agreed is very interesting for at least four reasons. For the first time gender balance in top EU jobs was achieved with two key positions given to women: Ursula von der Leyen at the head of the Commission and Christine Lagarde at the ECB. This is both noteworthy and long overdue as EU top jobs have had a long tradition of being dominated by men.

Ursula von der Leyen, the second German national since Walter Hallstein (1958-1967) to preside the Commission, is also in many ways a compromise nomination. She was an ingenious choice for Emmanuel Macron, who had suggested her name, and Angela Merkel. A Christian-Democrat, von der Leyen, was a palatable candidate to both the German CDU-CSU and the EPP, which had to renounce its lead candidate, Manfred Weber. She can boost a unanimous vote, despite Merkel’s abstention to preserve her coalition with the SPD at home, Sweden’s support and the benevolent support of Poland and Hungary, both of which had rejected Timmermanns’ candidacy on account of his criticism of their contentious constitutional and judicial reforms. Von der Leyen is also close to Merkel, who comes strengthened of the bargaining, despite her original candidate’s eventual side-lining. Given that von der Leyen was a Franco-German compromise, it does not come as a total surprise that a French national, Christine Lagarde, whose financial and economic credentials are rock-solid and longstanding, would obtain another top position at the ECB.

The casting also reflects subtle compromise between EU member states, small and large as well as northern and southern. First and foremost, it is a compromise agreement between France and Germany, whose disagreements had been profound. As such it also a way to stage a renewed Franco-German entente, that has been far from evident in the recent past. Also, with Josep Borrell to follow in Javier Solana’s footstep, Spain secures again an extremely influential position. Finally the choice of Belgian Charles Michel for the presidency of the European Council is a gesture towards smaller member states.

All in all, the casting has thus clear advantages or strengths. However, an obvious collateral victim of yesterday’s agreement and the bargaining between EU member states that brought is about is the Spitzenkandiaten process. Yet, the manner in which the candidates, regardless of their competences, experience and credentials, which relied exclusively on intergovernmental bargaining, may ultimately weaken the democratic legitimacy of the new Commission president. This may give fresh ammunitions to EU-critical, populist governments and others. Although the EP still has the power to confirm the chosen fews, it has lost a tool – temporarily or not – to control the nomination of the Commission president. The appointment process has also reaffirmed the preponderance of member states when there had been much talk about the EP’s enhanced status after the Lisbon Treaty.

Whether the assets of the new EU casting will be confirmed is too early to tell.

Jost-Henrik Morgenstern-PomorskiLecturer, European Studies, Department of Politics, Maastricht University

The personnel package that the European Council has proposed (assuming the European Parliament plays ball) is typical in the sense that many names that were floated before were blocked in the negotiations (Georgieva, for example). EUCO members then were pulling out more surprising names out of the hat. The choices are also typical in the sense that all of the candidates represent middle of the road positions of the political parties. All are experienced politicians, at least at the national level, but none are particularly inspiring. The European Council has continued to put forward candidates that are not too dangerous to leadership by the EUCO members themselves. There are however some dedicated European politicians waiting in the second row, so I think business as usual is the overall message. It is a clearly a managerial or caretaker arrangement rather than a transformative Commission (or EUCO Presidency).

I think it’s glaringly obvious that Central and Eastern European countries are so far quite poorly represented, especially considering the central role Donald Tusk has played over the past years. Partly that will be due to the fact that e.g. those V4 countries working to undermine European integration will find it hard to propose a candidate acceptable to a majority of the other member states. It is also ironic that the Hungarian government claimed they managed to block Timmermans, only to end up with him likely staying where he is now. I wouldn’t expect his dedication to address the undermining of European values by Hungary and Poland to diminish over the next Commission term, even without full support by member states.

Ragnar WeilandtAdjunct Professor, Vesalius College Brussels

I think we should be careful with early judgements. In 2014, some criticised that Federica Mogherina was chosen over more high profile candidates like Radosław Sikorski. Others were unhappy with the selection of Donald Tusk because of his English language skills. In retrospect there is broad agreement that both have been strong leaders.

Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell would be able to further strengthen the European Commission’s executive role. They might not be widely known across Europe yet, but they do have substantial relevant experience and are well-connected in European politics. However, they have yet to face the European Parliament and it cannot be taken for granted that they will be confirmed. More generally, they might be damaged by the way they were chosen. How this return to backroom deals in the European Council will play out in the medium-term remains to be seen.

Von der Leyen will also be challenged over her performance at the German ministry of defence. But to be fair, German defence minister is a post widely seen as an “ejector seat” for German politicians and that she managed to become the longest-serving defence minister in 20 years suggests her ability to navigate difficult political environments. Borell was previously foreign minister of a state that does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, which may complicate the EU’s role in mediating between Priština and Belgrade. As former Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles Michel is experienced in crafting difficult compromises, which is a good qualification to the post of President of the European Council.

What puzzled me is how much the Visegrád governments celebrated the nomination of von der Leyen. There is no reason to think that she will be soft on the rule of law. She favours much deeper EU integration, in fact she has regularly called for creating the “United States of Europe” and establishing a European army. She also stood firmly behind Angela Merkel on refugees and is very progressive on social issues. And while the Visegrád countries have prevented Frans Timmermans as Commission president, it looks like he will remain first Vice President of the Commission.

Thibaud Deruelle, PhD fellow in European Politics, University of Exeter

I see three important points:

– Gender
– The national distribution
– The death of the spitzenkandidat

All these things relate to the current question of credibility of the EU. What kind of political stage has the EU become? The candidates selected for the executive are the result of a compromise between member states whose red lines keep on weakening the Commission. The choice for European Council President remains “classic” (but who really cares about the European Council president?). And politics in the EP are more a matter of throwing a bone to some people at the moment than anything (as it is for the VPs in the Commission).

It seems that it is and will continue to be a second order political stage where the stakes between EU institutions barely resonate in the political life of the continent. The rise in importance of the European Council has clearly weakened the consolidation of the EP’s political importance which had been pretty steady over the years.

The debate among political leaders remains between strong vs weak institutions, but they never really question practicality: indeed, what is this Commission appointed for? What are the important dossiers and how are these people the best to tackle then? Why does it look so much that EU leaders filled the role because they have to? In a functioning polity people are excited for change, not here.

Vihar GeorgievAssistant Professor, European Studies Department, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski

The proposals of the European Council were, as always, the result of a difficult compromise. Given the reactions from the European political specter, it appears that a good compromise has been reached – where everyone is a bit unhappy about the result.

Looking at the proposal for European Commission President, a few things should be noted. Ursula von der Leyen is a capable politician with strong European roots. However, she lacks the experience of a Prime Minister, which could be a problem. She is also instinctively focused on foreign affairs, but her task will be to keep the European train going. So she will have to learn fast how to work on diverse policy portfolios while maintaining the team spirit within the Commission.

Christine Lagarde is probably the best placed candidate for President of the ECB. True, she is not an economist per se, but she has the experience of dealing with the economic and financial crisis in both France and at the IMF. She is trusted by both European governments and the corporate sector. All in all, a very strong candidate at a time when the next global economic crisis might be just behind the corner.

Charles Michel, proposed as next President of the European Council, knows how to reach compromise. Being Prime Minister of Belgium, he is used to managing disagreements and discord. It is not clear, though, whether he will be able to work well with Eastern Europeans and the UK. The good thing about him is that he will bring fresh thinking, and a desire to innovate, to the European Council.

Josep Borrell’s nomination for HR/VP is interesting. He’s an unlikely diplomat, prone to emotions and strong opinions. At the same time he is very determined and industrious. Only time can tell whether he will be able to muster the complexities of EU’s foreign policy terrain.

To summarize, the proposed candidates for top EU jobs will probably perform reasonably well. The weakest link appears to be Ursula von der Leyen, given the high expectations towards the new European Commission. Von der Leyen now needs to convince both the European Parliament and the European citizens that she can do her job effectively, without bias, bringing the EU closer to its citizens.

Regarding fact that not one of the EU top jobs went to the Central and Eastern Europe two explanations are possible – that there were no strong candidates and/or that older Member States were uncomfortable with the confrontational stance of Eastern European leaders.

Nick WrightTeaching Fellow in EU Politics, University College London

It is interesting that all key nominations are from established, older member states – German Com President, Spanish HR, French ECB, and Belgian EUCO President. No-one from the central/eastern groups – Georgieva was being tipped at one point for the EUCO job – no Scandinavian reps. It will be interesting to see how the big Commission portfolios are allocated, then.

It suggests, though, that when it came down to it France and Germany were able to make a deal, Merkel probably got her ideal candidate (she never wanted Weber) and – most interestingly – the Spitzenkandidat system has been dealt a significantly damaging blow.

All this needs to get through the European Parliament, of course, so it isn’t signed, sealed and delivered yet, but this feels like the EU system doing what it does best – thrashing out a compromise.

Finally, it should be said that after the best part of 70 years, it is high time the Commission had a female President so this is a positive.


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