The EU’s New Leadership: Imperative to Overcome Europe’s Uncertain Politics

Anthony Salamone

Since the European Parliament elections in May, attention in Brussels has focused on determining the leadership of the EU institutions for the new institutional cycle (2019-2024). On 2 July, following three days of summitry, EU leaders announced their selections for four EU top posts – the Presidents of the European Commission, European Council, and European Central Bank; and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The European Parliament also elected its new president the next day. The great surprise was undoubtedly the announcement of Ursula von der Leyen as the European Council’s selection for Commission President.

The EU’s New Leadership: Imperative to Overcome Europe’s Uncertain Politics
© 2019 European Union

Von der Leyen was neither a Spitzenkandidat(in) – a designated lead candidate for the role – nor mentioned previously as a possible contender. Her nomination was approved by the European Parliament on 16 July, but only by a small margin. Consequently, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) will now have held the Commission presidency for 20 years (2004-2024). Given that Christine Lagarde, the new ECB President, also hails from the EPP, the party has managed to do well for itself, considering it lost 35 seats in May’s European elections (though still finishing first).

Earlier in the negotiations, the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) seemed to have a chance of taking the Commission presidency – as was purportedly agreed by France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain on the margins of the G20 summit in Osaka this June. Ultimately, that compromise collapsed, not least under resistance from Member States from Central and Eastern Europe, some of whom opposed a potential centre-left candidate’s emphasis on the rule of law within the EU – namely, in their countries.

In the end, the PES secured once more the High Representative post, with Josep Borrell taking the role. It also now holds the European Parliament presidency, with the election of David Sassoli. The Parliament has seemingly followed the European Council’s recommendation that the PES should take the role for the first 2.5 years of the parliamentary term. However, it did not follow its recommendation on the candidate – EU leaders reportedly suggested Sergei Stanishev. In theory, Sassoli should then make way for an EPP president midway through the five-year term.

The liberal Renew Europe (formerly called ALDE) gained one post – Charles Michel will become the new President of the European Council. Unlike the other posts in question, this role does not require the approval of the Parliament, and Michel was confirmed by EU leaders directly. French President Emmanuel Macron is the most high-profile Renew member of the European Council, and this institutional cycle marked his first opportunity to participate in deciding the EU’s top posts.

While Renew has managed better than in 2014, when it did not take any of these posts, its success does seem relatively modest, given that it has 108 MEPs and 6 members of the European Council. The Greens made gains in seats and profile in the European elections, but that success did not translate into influence in the selection of the EU’s top posts. In that regard, despite the elections producing a more politically diverse parliament, the EPP, PES and Renew/ALDE have shared the top posts among themselves – very much business as usual.

Bridging or Perpetuating the EU’s Divisions?

What do these selections from the European Council tell us about the European Union and its current politics? The headline message is that the large Western Member States, particularly France and Germany, still exercise decisive influence when it matters. The names to emerge from the nomination process were a combination of their own nationals and figures whom they believe will be suitable to their interests. These power dynamics are not new – they have defined the EU and its predecessors since their creation.

Nevertheless, it was surprising that they so openly prevailed once again, given the substantial rhetorical investment by the EU institutions and national leaders on changing and improving the EU. Closed-door deals between major powers, with some limited input from the rest, is not consistent with the refrain of rebuilding public confidence in the EU. These nominations also had an air of defensiveness – the longstanding powerbrokers have defied today’s reality of 28 Member States across Western, Central and Eastern Europe, perhaps for one last political cycle, even if that might weaken the cohesion of the Union.

The selections demonstrate equally clearly that the European mainstream decided to continue its cordon sanitaire approach to European populists. It has not only excluded populists from posts – as would be more or less expected – but has carried on with business as usual as if they were not there. That strategy has already been tried – and it simply adds fuel to the populist fire. The EU will require meaningful solutions to the real problems upon which populism thrives, if it is to truly address public concerns and rebalance politics.

France, Germany and Spain all did well in the allocation of the EU’s top jobs. The remaining big Member States, excluding the UK – Italy and Poland, did not. Their lack of influence was largely attributable to their populist governments (though the Italian government has since changed). That failure was largely of their own making – both governments pursued confrontational relations with other Member States and accusatory tactics towards the EU institutions. At the same time, the core of France, Germany and Spain, with a few other states in orbit, decided to work together without them. Even if for altruistic motivations, such exclusion ultimately feeds grievance and undermines confidence. In the long run, better solutions will be needed.

The selections also present a stark East-West divide in the EU. Including the Parliament presidency, these top five posts have gone to nationals from Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and France. That outcome seems more in keeping with the EU15 of the 1990s than the present EU of 28 Member States and 508 million people. The suggestion from the European Council, that geographical balance can be satisfied through portfolio allocations in the new College of Commissioners, is a weak ex-post-facto argument.

The political power, and public symbolism, associated with the high-profile presidencies are markedly different from key Commission briefs. Some countries may well have decided to tactically concentrate their lobbying efforts elsewhere, including Commission portfolios and senior posts in the EU civil service. However, most Eastern Member States have been in the EU for 15 years. Geographical balance is not a novel concept, and the failure to account for it will undermine the ability of the EU institutions to represent the whole of the Union.

Gender balance in the EU’s top posts has also featured more prominently in political rhetoric than ever before. Indeed, Ursula von der Leyen will be the first female President of the Commission – in that regard a welcome, though overdue, development. Nevertheless, the EU must be more representative in every respect and further improvements remain to be made. Gender balance is also important for the College of Commissioners. Achieving such a balance has been a stated priority of von der Leyen. While it is up to national governments to nominate their candidates for commissioner, they ultimately aided this goal and von der Leyen’s initial proposed team was gender balanced.

Overall, the selections show that the European Union remains governed by substantial divisions. When it came to deciding names, principled rhetoric gave way to political calculus. This time around, however, the closed-door compromises do not sit well with the European elections and the numerous pledges by leaders to increase transparency and accountability. Going forward, much greater effort will be required to bring together countries and factions.

End of the Spitzenkandidat?

In selecting von der Leyen, the European Council discarded the Spitzenkandidaten process – choosing the Commission president through lead candidates from European political parties, linked with the European Parliament elections. The fate of the system looked uncertain throughout this electoral cycle. French President Emmanuel Macron spearheaded opposition to it early on. While other EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, voiced public support, it was not certain that the European Council would implement the system after the election – and ultimately it did not.

The ongoing dispute around whether to follow the system stems from its origins. The process is not part of the EU treaties – it was advocated by the European Parliament in 2014, with the aim of changing the Commission president selection procedure through precedent. This second time around, the continued lack of agreement on the details also made it confused.

The European political parties did not adopt a common approach on the number of candidates to nominate, which made it difficult to construct a clear contest between a single lead candidate from each party. While the EPP and PES each nominated one lead candidate, Renew (then ALDE) put forward a team of seven candidates and the Greens proposed two candidates. It was also never fully established whether the Commission president should automatically be the lead candidate from the party with the largest number of seats, or instead the lead candidate who could gather a majority in the Parliament (though, in practice, that might be the same person).

In the aftermath of the European elections, the discussion pivoted away from the largest party candidate concept to the idea that the Commission president should be any of the named Spitzenkandidaten, regardless of their ranking by their party. It was therefore all the more surprising that the European Council backtracked from that idea too, and reverted to a traditional intergovernmental compromise.

The Spitzenkandidaten experiment appears to have failed – for now. However noble its ambitions, the process should always have been based on a formal agreement between the EU institutions. The absence of such agreement reduced its legitimacy and in the end led to its downfall. Nevertheless, the principles underpinning the process are important and should be taken forward in some form.

EU leaders must now agree a selection process for the Commission presidency which incorporates these democratic features, ensuring it is simple, clear and binding. The aim should be to reach an interinstitutional agreement, with a view to eventual treaty change in the years ahead. This work should begin soon, so that the revised process is agreed and in place well before the next European election cycle. Hopefully the revived process will also include a simpler name!

Commission President: Prospects for von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen will become the first German President of the Commission in over 50 years. One of the principal consequences of her selection is that she has had to start from scratch. Since von der Leyen was not an official candidate for the office, nor even considered an unofficial candidate, she began with no public vision for the Commission and the EU for the next five years.

While she has had some space to create one since her nomination, time has nevertheless been short for her to outline her legislative priorities for the EU. The risk has been that, in the rush first to secure confirmation and later to assemble a full programme, contradictory and infeasible promises are made.

Von der Leyen’s nomination to the Commission also raised questions about geographical balance among the senior officials in the EU institutions. At the time, Germans held the Secretary-General posts in the European Commission (Martin Selmayr), European Parliament (Klaus Welle) and the European External Action Service (Helga Schmid). With a German Commission president as well, that concentration in one nationality was not sustainable. Indeed, Selmayr resigned from his position after von der Leyen’s confirmation.

Assembling the new College of Commissioners has proven a substantial challenge. Three nominees (from France, Hungary and Romania) have been rejected by the European Parliament, necessitating their replacement by their national governments. The start of the new Commission has as a result been delayed from 1 November to December. Von der Leyen has come under criticism for some of the portfolios she has created – particularly the ‘Protecting our European Way of Life’ brief. Such titles are seen as excessively political and vague. Moreover, some commissioner nominees have been given extremely wide-ranging portfolios – Margrethe Vestager is set to be responsible for both digital policy and competition, for instance (the latter in particular normally stands on its own). The concern would be that it would be difficult for a single individual to manage simultaneously these multiple briefs in sufficient detail.

With the developing nature of Brexit, the UK’s relationship with the new Commission is currently unclear. The UK Government has not nominated a new commissioner. If the UK remains in the EU beyond the start of the von der Leyen Commission, it is possible that the UK might have to provide one. Given that all potential commissioners must be nominated, given a portfolio brief, scrutinised by the Parliament and then voted on as a bloc, it is difficult to see how a UK commissioner could be included on short notice. Since the new Commission has been delayed however, more time is now available to accommodate a UK candidate. In such circumstances, the UK might renominate its outgoing commissioner, the civil servant Julian King.

Von der Leyen has needed to define her primary policy ideas. Her political guidelines, A Union that Strives for More, are an eclectic collection of priorities. Outgoing President Jean-Claude Juncker focused heavily on his Investment Plan for Europe. Juncker also ruled out candidate country accessions during his term (though no candidate was ready in any case). His mantra of ‘big on big things, small on small things’ led to a dramatic reduction in the number of legislative proposals originated by the Commission. He also pledged to operate a more ‘political Commission’ – though the implications, success and legacy of that philosophy remain to be decided. To what extent will von der Leyen follow in these footsteps, or instead set a different course?

The EU faces no shortage of challenges – ranging from urgent action to mitigate climate change and navigating difficult geopolitics with the US, China and Russia, to finding effective solutions for Europe’s ageing demography, the future of work and the disruptive rise of new technologies. At the same time, the EU remains divided and common values are increasingly called into question. The European Council’s selections for the EU’s top jobs reflect to some degree the uncertain state of European politics. The new leaders of the EU institutions, together with the Member States, must chart a path forward which rebuilds cohesion, solidarity and trust. The future of the EU may be in the balance.


Tobias LockEdinburgh Europa Institute LogoAnthony Salamone
European Merchants

Anthony Salamone is Managing Director of European Merchants, a political consultancy in Edinburgh. His expertise includes the politics and institutions of the EU, Brexit, and Scottish and UK politics. He is a Member of the Edinburgh Europa Institute and Honorary Fellow of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.


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