Europe Letter: Race for top EU jobs speeds up

Kenny unlikely to throw his hat into the ring now for plum post

Finland’s prime minister Jyrki Katainen (left)  and his Polish counterpart  Donald Tusk, both  possible candidates to be next president of the European Commission. Photograph: Mauri Ratilainen/EPA

Finland’s prime minister Jyrki Katainen (left) and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk, both possible candidates to be next president of the European Commission. Photograph: Mauri Ratilainen/EPA

 

With the European Commission and parliament entering the final stretch before elections in May, staff of all ranks are nervously looking ahead and positioning themselves for jobs in the new administration.

But it is the race for the top jobs that is absorbing most people’s attention.

This week the contest to be the European People’s Party’s (EPP) candidate for commission president stepped up a gear, following reports German chancellor Angela Merkel has backed former Luxembourg prime minister Jean- Claude Juncker for the post.

As the biggest parliamentary grouping , what the EPP does matters. In four weeks’ time its congress opens in the Convention Centre in Dublin, at which it plans to name its candidate to succeed José Manuel Barroso as head of the commission.

The idea to name candidates ahead of time is a new one. Previously, the nomination for commission president emerged after behind-the- scenes horse-trading following parliamentary elections. But the Lisbon Treaty states member states “must take account of” the results of the European elections when choosing the candidate.


Direct link
The hope is that a direct link between the make-up of the parliament – the only EU institution that is directly elected by European citizens – and the filling of the top post would increase the democratic accountability of the election process, and give voters a direct say in who will be the next commission president.

But the woolliness of the precise wording in the treaty has led to differing interpretation. Many, particularly centre- right parties that form the EPP, dispute that the words “take account of” mean that the candidate must be the nominee of the biggest political group in the next European Parliament.

With polls predicting centre- right parties are likely to lose ground to left-wing parties in May’s elections, there is a very real concern the EPP may not be in the majority come June.

There is also the argument that the concept of naming a candidate ahead of time is particularly difficult for the EPP, which has a number of sitting prime ministers (such as Enda Kenny) who could be interested in the position, and who understandably would be reluctant to confirm their interest ahead of time.


Easy call
While the second-largest grouping, the Socialists and Democrats, have named their candidate – current European Parliament president Martin Schulz – arguably this was an easy call given there was only one real candidate considered for the position.


Fleeting promise
Similarly, ALDE, the third- largest group, which had offered a fleeting promise of a good old-fashioned nomination contest after former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt and EU economics commissioner Olli Rehn expressed their interest, has opted for Verhofstadt following Rehn’s withdrawal.

Despite expectations that the EPP will name a candidate in Dublin, there is no guarantee that this person will become commission president even if the EPP wins a majority in the European elections. In October, Merkel said in Brussels that the Lisbon Treaty does not specifically state that member states must choose the nominee of the largest party.

Apart from possible EPP nominees, other non-EPP candidates who would have the support of heavyweights such as Germany and France have been mooted. IMF managing director Christine Lagarde declined to directly answer questions in Brussels last week about her interest in the post.


Possible candidates
Among current EPP members, possible candidates include Juncker and former Latvian prime minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, who are both recently out of a job, as well as Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, a close ally of Merkel, and the youthful Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen. Kenny is still seen as a very strong candidate, and is a very popular leader with EU colleagues, thanks in part to his long history of involvement with the EPP.

Kenny is highly unlikely to throw his hat at the ring at this point . As with many other candidates, it would be more politically prudent to await the discussions around the position of European Council president, which will be up for grabs just after the commission president appointment.

While whoever is named as EPP candidate for the commission presidency in Dublin may become head of the EU executive arm, the final decision will ultimately be made behind closed doors in Brussels.

Presidential debates
Grand plans of American-style presidential debates between would-be candidates as a way of engaging EU citizens in the run-up to May’s elections still seem a long way off for the EU.

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