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Why are leaders deadlocked over the top EU jobs - and who's in the running?

European leaders showed frustration as they entered a third day of discussions on who should fill the EU’s top jobs.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel with Jean-Claude Juncker during the EU summit.
Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel with Jean-Claude Juncker during the EU summit.

FOR DAYS, EUROPEAN leaders have been deadlocked over who should take the EU’s top jobs and succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission.

The European Commission drafts EU laws, oversees national budgets, enforces EU treaties and negotiates international trade deals – making the President the most powerful of the EU roles on offer.

The argument over who should take the job is nuanced, and the deadlock is partly to do with having no fixed or certain method of choosing the EC president – the method used to elect Jean-Claude Juncker, which they’re currently trying to use this time around, has only been used once.

That method is that each European party group would choose a nominee, or a Spitzenkandidat, to be their candidate for the European Commission President. 

The European Council (which is the name for the EU’s 28 leaders) would then discuss their preferred candidate of those nominated, and choose one to put forward. The newly-elected European Parliament would then confirm (or reject) the nominee in a vote.

Because MEPs ratify the candidate, usually the candidate of the European party with the largest support wins this contest. But things are more complicated after the last election.

France EU Parliament Source: Jean-Francois Badias

The May elections produced a bit of a mixed bag of elected representatives: the European People’s Party (EPP) lost a chunk of its majority, there was a slight ‘Green wave’, and far-right candidates representation also increased somewhat (though this won’t influence legislation much, as far-right and far-left politicians tend not to vote together on all issues).

Who’s in the running?

In choosing the next EC President, the 28 EU leaders will give consideration to experience in the EU and at home, political support in the European Parliament, and a wide-ranging representation of the EU. Among the concerns, is that the EU’s top brass has too strong an influence from Germany and France.

But there’s been push-back against him, with one of the criticisms being the perception of too much German influence in the EU’s top jobs.

German MEP Manfred Weber is the EPP’s candidate, and was a favourite for the role. At one point, the centre-right MEP claimed to have the support of nine EU member states, but since the weekend, seems to have been abandoned due to Macron’s staunch opposition to him (more on this later). 

Frans Timmermans is a 58-year-old Dutch politician, and is the First Vice-President of the European Commission, so a deputy to Jean-Claude Juncker. His party is the European Socialists (PES, or S&D), which won 20% of the European Parliament seats, making it the second largest party.

Although he’s emerged as the compromise candidate between France and Germany over the weekend, the centre-left pick is being met with strict opposition by other countries due to his criticism of some nations approach to social care and civil liberties. 

G20 - Event on Women's empowerment Source: ABACA/PA Images

This afternoon, Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was being suggested by Donald Tusk for the EC role, according to Die Welt – a candidate that hadn’t been previously mentioned or considered. 

Another possible option is Margrethe Vestager, who has who respect for her handling of the tech giants Google and Facebook, and other multinationals, as the EU’s competition commissioner. She’s also the candidate of the third biggest party (Renew Europe, of which ALDE forms a part).

Michel Barnier had been mentioned as another possible candidate: he was in the running for president of the European Commission back in 2014 when Juncker was nominated, and has grown in the estimations of his peers because of his handling of Brexit negotiations.

Surprisingly, Leo Varadkar‘s name has also been mentioned, echoing the last discussions for the European Commission President in 2014, when the then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny was rumoured to be among those in line for the job.

Listing the Taoiseach among its list of candidates, the Financial Times described Varadkar as being both “a true generational change”, and “untested and socially awkward”.

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Among the other jobs that remain to be filled are the head of the European Central Bank (replacing Mario Draghi); head of the European Council (replacing Donald Tusk); the EU’s foreign policy chief (replacing Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini).

Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva or Belgium’s Charles Michael could take Tusk’s job, Christine Lagarde, currently head of the International Monetary Fund is being suggested as the head of the ECB; and Slovakia’s Maros Sefcovic Margrethe Vestager is tipped for the foreign policy position. 

Margrethe Vestager Press Conference - Paris European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager during the Competition and the Digital Economy Conference. Source: ABACA/PA Images

What’s the debate about at the moment?

A candidate must secure the backing of 21 of the 28 EU leaders, representing 65% of the bloc’s population, to get the job. In 2014, 26 out of 28 countries backed Juncker’s appointment – Cameron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban opposed it.

Initially, Weber was the favourite – as the candidate of the largest party. But there’s been push-back against him, with one of the criticisms being the perception of too much German influence in the EU’s top jobs.

Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron found a compromise over the weekend in Frans Timmermans, the V4 are reportedly still set to block the centre-left pick as a candidate.

Also referred to as the Visegrád Group, the V4 is the nickname for the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, linked through a cultural and political alliance.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš says the V4 would reject Frans Timmermans because of “his views about our region,” and on immigration.

The European Council are eager to pick a candidate who represents the majority of the European Union with the added pressure of showing unity in the wake of Brexit.

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