Leading Europe at a time of change

EPP is set to declare candidate for European Commission president

Head of the European People’s Party Joseph Daul said Taoiseach Enda Kenny would be a good candidate for the role of European Commission president. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA

Head of the European People’s Party Joseph Daul said Taoiseach Enda Kenny would be a good candidate for the role of European Commission president. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA


Sitting in the serene surroundings of Chateau de Bouchot just outside Brussels, Joseph Daul has just waved goodbye to the group of EPP leaders, who have gathered for the traditional pre- European council summit meeting.

The straight-talking former farmer and MEP from the Alsace region in France was elected as head of the European People’s Party last month, following the death of Wilfried Martens.

He takes the helm at a busy time. Next May, millions of voters will vote in European elections. The Brussels political class fears a blood-bath. Analysts are predicting sharp losses for the mainstream political groupings and a swing towards fringe parties of the right and left as an austerity-weary takes to the polls for the first time since the full scale of the euro zone crisis has become apparent.

But the EPP has a more pressing task ahead before the campaign begins in earnest. For the first time European political groupings must declare their candidate for European Commission president in advance of the European elections. While the aim is to increase the democratic credentials of the election of the EU’s top executive position, the process poses a political difficulty for prospective candidates who must publically declare their interest months in advance. The other left-wing political groupings in the European Parliament have already unveiled their candidates -current European Parliament president Martin Schulz is the PES (Party for European socialists) candidate, while EU economics commissioner Olli Rehn and Guy Verhofstadt are fighting it out to represent the Liberal ALDE party.

The EPP, the largest political grouping in the European Parliament, confirmed last week that a candidate will be selected by March 5th, the eve of its congress in Dublin. Joseph Daul is predictably coy about who he thinks ultimately will emerge as the candidate over the next few months, but on Enda Kenny’s credibility as a candidate he is crystal clear. “He’s a very good candidate,” he says emphatically. “Candidates must now discuss it between themselves -between heads of state - to see who supports who,” he says.

With Britain, France and Italy out of the picture - the Conservative Party left the EPP last year while the French and Italian governments are aligned with the socialist groupings in the parliament - candidates would need the support of heavyweights such as Germany, Spain and Poland in the EPP group.

Kenny’s relationship with Merkel is crucial, though the German chancellor is a close supporter of Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, with Poland an increasingly important player in European Union matters. Two recent political surprises - the Luxembourg election which left prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker out of a job, and the surprise decision of the Latvian prime minister to resign following the collapse of a shopping centre roof in Riga, has suddenly turned the spotlight on both men. Though careful not to endorse a particular candidate, the name of Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis surfaces as Daul speaks.

Enda Kenny, like other leaders, like Dombrovskis for example, when you see how they’ve managed their countries [...]they are very good candidates.”

Dombrovskis is highly-regarded in EU circles while the possibility of a Commission president from a Baltic state also surfaced during the 2009 elections. “The European Union is definitely ready for a Commission president from one of the 2004 accession countries. Romania and Bulgaria, not so much,” said one EU official.

The youthful Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen is likely to be acceptable to Germany, in light of the strengthening Northern alliance between Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, particularly in relation to European economic affairs.

The Taoiseach’s European credentials are viewed as impeccable -his position as former vice-president of the EPP, a position he held alongside Mr Katainen among others, provided him with ready-made European contacts when he was eventually elected as leader of the country two years ago. Again, political timing plays a role. European sources stress that while it would have been unthinkable to have elected an Irish Commission president while Ireland was in a bailout, the country’s exit from the programme, and successful Council presidency is now seen as an advantage, though tensions between Brussels and Dublin which surfaced last week could affect sentiment. Kenny’s status as a relatively moderate conservative is also seen as a distinct advantage, making him an acceptable candidate to left wing countries

One stumbling-block could be language skills. Unlike Barroso, the Taoiseach does not speak French, though this is seen as much less of a pre-requisite than it once was.

While Britain will have no role in choosing the EPP candidate, member state support and bargaining will come into play with the various political appointments at the upper echelons of the European Union, that will be triggered by the European elections.

With the European Council position decided over a much quicker time-scale than that of Commission president, leaders, including Kenny, may view the Council position as a more attractive option.

“I know it’s politically difficult for a prime minister to announce officially his candidature,” says Daul, adding that that is why the decision should be made by consensus over the next month, with two, or preferably one, candidates emerging.

Meanwhile, with five months to go until the European elections, EPP strategists are already preparing for what will be a difficult election for mainstream parties, particularly of the centre-right. Daul is conscious of a possible shift of support for the left in the current economic climate.”The Socialists have started to communicate that the EPP equals austerity... The EPP does not represent austerity, the EPP represents seriousness. The EPP parties have taken what the Socialists have broken and had to repair it.” He is also realistic about the prospect of a significant upswing in support for extreme parties.

“Yes, I am worried, we have seen the opinion polls” he says, adding that the extreme-left is as much a threat as the extreme-right.

“If you look at what the Trotskyists in France, what they do in light of the globalised economy, is as bad as the extreme right. Yes, I am worried [.. .]

Ensuring that democratic parties remain in the majority in the European Parliament is our premier objective in the next few months.”