Unpacking the EU’s Top Jobs Package
July 12, 2019
Q1: What were the results of negotiations between EU leaders for the European Union’s “top jobs”?
A1: After days of long negotiations and compromise, the European Council, which is comprised of the heads of state and government of the EU member states, eventually agreed on July 2 on a package to fill the four “top jobs” in the EU institutions. The lineup of nominees is as follows:
- European Commission president: Germany’s minister of defense Ursula von der Leyen of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP);
- High representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the Commission: Spain’s minister of foreign affairs Josep Borrell of the social democratic Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D);
- Council president: Belgium’s caretaker prime minister Charles Michel of the liberal Renew Europe party (RE);
- European Central Bank president: Christine Lagarde, current head of the International Monetary Fund and France’s former conservative minister of the economy, finance, and industry.
In addition to these four positions, the European Parliament (EP) elected the Italian social democrat David Sassoli as its new president. The haggling yielded a somewhat out-of-the-hat lineup that included none of the candidates presented by the major EP party families during the campaign. While the EPP secured the most votes in the EP elections, its German frontrunner, Manfred Weber, enjoyed little personal support in European capitals. He had adopted an ambiguous stance toward rule-of-law concerns in Eastern Europe, seeking support from Hungarian president Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, and he performed poorly during the campaign. It quickly became evident after the elections that most EU member states would not be inclined to nominate him as the next Commission president.
Many different configurations—weighing political, personal, and nationality criteria—failed to secure enough support in the European Council. The most promising one, negotiated on the margins of the recent G20 meeting in Japan, would have put the Dutch leader of the S&D party, Frans Timmermans, at the head of the Commission. It was rejected by Central and Eastern European countries, as well as Italy, who remember Timmermans’ vivid criticism of the deterioration of the rule of law in those countries.
Eventually, von der Leyen—who, like Weber, is a German conservative—emerged as the basis of a package of candidates that both reflects the outcome of the EP elections and is favorably viewed in many European capitals. The package was approved unanimously minus one abstention (i.e. Germany, as the country’s “grand coalition” could not reach consensus on von der Leyen’s appointment). The agreed-upon team includes seasoned political figures with experience on both the European and international stages. Importantly, it offers gender parity among the top positions in EU institutions for the first time.
Q2: What does this mean for the European Union?
A2: First, in terms of institutional balance, member states have reasserted their authority over the EP. The most important EP political families had tried to establish a spitzenkandidat (“lead candidate”) system that would see the main campaigner for the most popular EP political group become Commission president. Such a system is, according to its promoters, the most democratic as it directly translates the results of the EP elections into leadership of the Commission. Its detractors argue the system constrains the choice of European heads of state and government and favors the two major parliamentary groups (EPP and S&D) at the expense of smaller ones—despite these two parties losing a significant number of seats in the 2019 elections. The Parliament weakened its leverage in the negotiations by supporting the spitzenkandidat system to the end despite Weber’s poor chances of being approved by the Council.
Second, in terms of geographical balance, the package clearly favors Western European countries, with three of the six founding members represented in the group. This is slightly unexpected, but this package ultimately proved acceptable to Central and Eastern European member states, who preferred to avoid an unfavorable compromise rather than push their own candidates.
Third, in terms of political balance, the package is overall a victory for the EPP, which came first in the EP elections and could now secure its fourth consecutive mandate at the head of the European commission. It should also provide EU institutions with a coherent center-right political direction, as all personalities emanate from the large, traditional parties—which will probably be criticized by new political forces that gained ground in the elections (e.g. Greens and RE).
Fourth, insofar as the proposed leadership team has been largely supportive of current EU policies, it is reasonable to expect a lot of continuity. If this is the case, it is likely to fuel criticism of the European status quo from those parties that have recently gained traction in the EP and national parliaments.
Q3: What does this mean for the transatlantic relationship and U.S. interests?
A3: All four nominees have solid credentials on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), defense, and security policy, which bodes well for enhanced EU-NATO cooperation in the coming years—a priority that has been voiced by many European and U.S. leaders. Importantly, von der Leyen, Lagarde, Michel, and Borrell have all been in extensive contact with U.S. officials over their careers and in their most recent positions. This will provide them with important contacts to support EU-U.S. ties (pending confirmation for the Commission president and the high representative). They are also known quantities on Russia and China policy at a time when the United States is trying to build coalitions against both actors’ behavior. They have stood strong on sanctions against Russia and are committed to a careful approach toward Chinese investments in Europe. However, one of the unknowns will be Borrell’s position on the Western Balkans given Spain’s non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and this could impede productive transatlantic cooperation in the region.
At the same time, all the nominees are also dedicated to a strong and unified European Union. They will not be afraid to diverge from the United States when interests do not align—for example on Iran, climate change, and trade. This foreshadows some honest and perhaps difficult discussions, particularly given the current U.S. administration’s skeptical approach to the European Union and the eurozone. But the incoming EU team will have the goodwill and credentials to make these discussions manageable.
Q4: What happens next?
A4: On July 16, the European Parliament will vote on the nominee for Commission president and either confirm (absolute majority of parliamentarians or 375 votes) or reject von der Leyen for the position (the Council and ECB presidents do not require EP confirmation). Though von der Leyen has been making the rounds with political groups, her confirmation is not guaranteed. The Greens seem lukewarm toward her and are vocally disappointed that member states decided to kill the “lead candidate” process. Social democrats from the German contingent oppose her for her record as Germany’s minister of defense, in which she pressed for increased defense spending and a more active German security role abroad and was involved in some procurement controversies. Without a portion of the center-left group, von der Leyen will need at least part of the Greens, her own EPP, and the liberal RE party (who have given positive feedback after meeting with her).
If the Commission president is confirmed, each member state will then nominate one commissioner, and the Parliament will vote on the entire college of commissioners in the fall—including the high representative. After this confirmation (and a qualified-majority appointment by the Council), commissioners will take office on November 1, 2019 for five years. The new ECB president, Lagarde, will begin on November 1 for an eight-year term, while Michel, the new European Council president, will start his two and a half-year term on December 1.
Should von der Leyen fail to receive enough votes, the European Union could face a serious political and institutional crisis. To address this, European leaders will likely organize an emergency summit to designate a new Commission president nominee, perhaps with more consultation with the Parliament to avoid another defeat. But there does not appear to be a credible alternative at this stage, given that the candidate will also have to be to hail from the EPP and that Weber has been de facto ruled out by many member states. With the Commission currently run by an interim team, the clock will be ticking toward November 1 with important deadlines along the way—not least of which include Brexit (currently scheduled for October 31) and difficult negotiations with the U.S. administration on trade issues.
Donatienne Ruy is a research associate with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Quentin Lopinot is a visiting fellow with the CSIS Europe Program.
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