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Who are the candidates most likely to replace Jean-Claude Juncker?

What does the President of the European Commission do, and how is he/she elected? It’s complicated…

Image: AP/PA Images

JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER is coming to the end of his colourful, quirky tenure as the European Commission’s president – so who can we expect to take his place, and how important is the role for Ireland?

Ahead of a debate this evening between six party candidates, we’ve looked into the power the European Commission President has, what each of the six candidates have said about Ireland in the past, and how likely they are to get the top job.

The European Union refers to 28 nations (which could soon be 27) that all practice the free movement of goods, services, people and capital. With some exceptions, they share the same trade rules, customs and goods standards.

To draft these laws, standards and rights across 28 member states, there are three institutions of the EU: the European Commission, which is made up of 28 commissioners; the European Parliament, which is made up of 751 MEPs; and the European Council, which is made up of the leaders of the 28 member states.

Each party of the European union nominates a lead candidate (officially known as ‘Spitzenkandidat‘) for the role; depending on which EU-wide party grouping wins the most MEP seats in the European elections.

As Juncker was the EPP’s lead candidate, and they won the most seats in 2014, this was how he was elected. That candidate is then proposed to the Council and if approved, then proposed to the Parliament for a final vote.

The President of the European Commission is the chief legislator, trade negotiator and regulator of the European Union, and is in charge of the 28 commissioners and which portfolio each of them holds. There’s one commissioner from each member state.

Ireland’s Phil Hogan is currently the EU Commissioner for Agriculture; he’s tipped to remain the commissioner for the next term, but that will be a decision for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to make, as Hogan himself has said.

If he does remain in the role, he’s likely to be given the much more hefty Trade portfolio; which would be hugely important for Ireland in the context of Brexit. It’s the President of the Commission who is ultimately given the role of deciding who gets what portfolio.

So who will be making that call next time round?

European Bank of Reconstruction and Development meeting Prime minister Tony Blair is screened above the head of Prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker (2004). Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The process for selecting the President of the European Commission has been as much a part of the debate as the candidates themselves. The EU’s leaders are divided over how much the result of this month’s EU elections should matter when filling the jobs.

French President Emmanuel Macron has argued against the system, saying pointedly: “our citizens have had enough of pre-cooked meals”.

Meanwhile, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned that defying the vote result by nominating leaders who did not campaign “would not strengthen confidence in the EU”.

Regardless, here’s a look at the candidates that will feature on tonight’s debate (which will be shown on RTÉ and streamed online from 8pm), two of which are the most likely to take the job if it’s based on the current selection process (ie, the strength of their party’s performance in the EU elections).

Predictions The predicted MEP seats in the European elections. Source: EuroParl

Ska Keller

Franziska Keller is a 37-year-old German MEP, and one of two candidates nominated by the Green Party (the other is Dutch politician Bas Eickhout). 

In the past, she’s tweeted her support for the vote for Repeal in last year’s Eighth Amendment referendum, and defended the backstop as a mechanism for safeguarding peace in Northern Ireland, which she said “is not an issue that should be underestimated”.

She’s unlikely to win out over more powerful party’s candidates, but makes for an interesting foil, arguing against a European army and that not enough is being done by the EU to alleviate the migration crisis.

Jan Zahradil

Jan Zahradil has been an MEP for the Czech Republic since 2004 and is the candidate for the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE, or formerly ECR).

He’s running under the campaign “retune the EU”: his political group says it stands for EU reform, open markets, lower taxes and family values. Its members include Belgium’s largest party, and a number of Brexiteer MEPs.

In March, Zahradil visited the Belcoo-Blacklion border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and claimed that “very few people in Brussels understand what a serious and constitutional security implication a hard border would have” in Northern Ireland.

Zahradil was also critical of the European Commission’s “attack” on Ireland’s tax system, and said in 2016 that it set a dangerous precedent.

Nico Cué

Nico Cué is the Secretary General of the Metalworkers’ Union of Belgium, and one of two of the European Left’s lead candidates. The EL represents socialist and communist parties; Cué has campaigned for improved pay and conditions for workers.

As his party is only predicted to win 55 seats, he’s unlikely to be the next EC President.

Frans Timmermans (joint frontrunner)

Timmermans is a 58-year-old Dutch politician, and is the First Vice-President of the European Commission, so the deputy to Juncker. He’s the candidate for the Party of European Socialists (PES, or S&D), which are the party predicted to win the second largest amount of seats in this election.

He visited Ireland last week as part of his campaign, and said that the issues he heard about here were the same as those elsewhere in Europe: “housing, wages, environment and equality”.

Speaking to the Irish Times, he said that the Commission could use its funds to help tackle Ireland’s housing crisis.  

“I would say to local councils or to Dublin City if you build new housing and you do at least 30% social housing we will support you financially. That is something we can do from Brussels.” 

Manfred Weber (joint frontrunner)

German MEP Manfred Weber is the EPP’s main candidate, as his party is projected to win the largest number of seats (this is also Fine Gael’s European party group). He’s said that he already has the support of nine EU member states, and will be an attractive option for centre-right leaders.

Interestingly, at a political meeting in Germany recently, he said that “we are proud that this continent has a Christian influence… it is not only something for museums, and that should guide us for the future”.

The European project should be “defended against nationalists and the selfish” he said, adding that Europe faced a “historic turning point” in defence of the European “way of life”.

Margrethe Vestager (joint frontrunner)

The ALDE group (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), is predicted to win the third largest share of MEP seats, and has nominated seven candidates, among which is Margrethe Vestager.

She’s the European Union’s competition commissioner, so is more recognisable than most, having criticised and slapped fines on Google, Apple, Nike, and Starbucks; as well as forcing Visa and MasterCard to reduce their fees for payments.

Her tough stance towards US firms drew the ire of Donald Trump, who has labelled her the “tax lady” – giving an indication of how she feels about Ireland’s corporate tax rate.

Although a strong candidate, she still hasn’t won the backing of her own government in Denmark: a prerequisite for her future at the EU executive in Brussels.

In an interview with AFP recently, she said that “it’s long overdue to have a woman as head of the EU Commission… If you look at the precedents, you see that men have had their go.”

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