Who is in the running for the EU's top jobs?
Europe Editor Patrick Smyth sets the scene and looks at the runners and riders
This year’s elections have led to a three-way split in the European Parliament, with none of the “spitzenkandidat” able to achieve a parliamentary majority. File photograph: Getty
Top jobs – the rules and the traditions
Every five years, at the beginning of a new term of the European Parliament, the European Council, which is made up of the EU heads of government, appoints four people to four top jobs: the presidencies of the European Commission, European Council and the European Central Bank; and the position of high representative for foreign and security policy, the EU’s chief diplomat who straddles the council and the commission.
They are elected by the leaders using qualified majority voting – in the case of the commission, this means 72 per cent support in the council, or 21 votes out of 28.
The process is complicated both by the job requirements and by the need to get approval for the appointment of European Commission president from the European Parliament, which has been increasingly aggressive about insisting on its veto prerogative.
As a way of asserting their authority, MEPs have established the spitzenkandidat system, which puts their nominees’ names at the top of the various groups’ electoral lists in the nomination process.
This year’s elections have led to a three-way split in parliament, with none of the spitzenkandidat able to achieve a parliamentary majority. Indeed, outgoing council president Donald Tusk appeared at the EU summit in Brussels last week to rule them out of the contest.
In addition, the heads of government are trying to achieve a balance of representation of the main parties, except in the “non-political” bank job. They are also seeking a balance by gender and by region – without more than one per country. To further complicate the issues, they want candidates with significant high-level executive experience. In the case of the council presidency job, that experience must be at least prime ministerial.
As Taoiseach Leo Varadakar observed on his way out of last week’s summit in Brussels, it’s “quicker to elect a pope”.
Leading groups in European Parliament (751 seats) and Council (28)
European People’s Party – 181 MEPs – 9 prime ministers
The group represents the centre-right, traditionally identified as Christian Democrats, and is dominated by the German CDU and CSU parties. It includes Fine Gael, and Hungary’s Fidesz party as well as the much depleted Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi. Since 2014 it has held the jobs of commission and council presidents, as well as that of the European Parliament.
Socialists and Democrats – 153 MEPs – 6 prime ministers
The Socialists and Democrats have seen their numbers decline and rebalanced with the election eclipse of the German SPD and the success of Spain’s PSOE. Ireland is currently unrepresented in the group.
Renew Europe – 108 MEPs – 8 prime ministers
The liberal ALDE group, one of the victors in the European elections, has expanded to include supporters of Emmanuel Macron and has been renamed Renew Europe. It includes Fianna Fáil, and is expected to be joined by Naomi Long for Alliance in the North – although only until Brexit.
Greens – 75 MEPs – 0 prime ministers
The Greens have seen a significant rise in their ranks in the election, including two new members from Ireland. They will not be in the running for any of the top jobs but are an important part of a working parliamentary majority and there is talk of the other groups offering group leader Ska Keller the parliament presidency to help make a compromise nominee for the commission job acceptable to MEPs.
Who are the incumbents in the top four jobs?
President European Commission – Jean Claude Juncker (Luxembourg – EPP)
President European Council – Donald Tusk (Poland – EPP)
President European Central Bank – Mario Draghi (Italy – non-political)
Who is in the running for the three political jobs?
Manfred Weber (German, EPP spitzenkandidat) – The Bavarian leader of EPP in parliament, he is affable and said to be a friend to Ireland in engagement over Brexit. Tusk has implied that the spitzenkandidat are now out of the running, but Weber is still formally the EPP candidate for the commission job and resolutely campaigning.
Frans Timmermans (Dutch, S&D spitzenkandidat) – Commission vice-president who has had responsibility, executed with gusto, for standing up to Hungary and Poland over breaches of rule of law. Was a civil servant before entering politics, served as minister of foreign affairs from 2012 to 2014. He has been boosted by remarkable revival in elections of Dutch Labour Party.
Margrethe Vestager (Danish, Renew Europe spitzenkandidat) – The well-regarded and tough competition commissioner did not endear herself to Ireland when she ruled that it had given improper state aid to Apple in illegal tax benefits to the tune of €13 billion and required Ireland to collect it. Apple and the Government are appealing the decision*. She has also pursued Google and Amazon in major unfair competition cases. Vestager has been a professional politician since the age of 21, led her Social Liberal Party and served as welfare-cutting minister for economic and interior affairs in the Social Democrat-led coalition government of Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Michel Barnier (French, EPP) – The EU chief Brexit negotiator is also seen as a “friend of Ireland” and Varadkar has reportedly been canvassing for him should Weber not make it. A former French government minister, he also served as a special adviser to president José Manuel Barroso, and did two stints as commissioner before his current role. He sought the commission presidency in 2014 but was beaten by Juncker. Although part of the Gaullist tradition and not part of the Macron political fold, he is said to have the French president’s support. He did not stand for parliament in the elections, unlike the spitzenkandidat, but has maintained a strong relationship with MEPs through intensive dialogue with them over the Brexit negotiations for which he is widely admired. Not a detail man, Barnier has a good political sense and surrounded himself with a powerful team.
Andrej Plenkovic (Croatian, EPP) – Went from European Parliament to being prime minister so should not have difficulty building a relationship with MEPs. The leader of a coalition government since 2016, his politics are variously described as pro-European and moderate conservative and his election as an exception in a Eurosceptic trend in Europe. Plenkovic was asked by fellow EPP leaders to be one of their two representatives in talks on brokering a jobs deal between the parties.
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (Croatian, EPP) – A career politician and diplomat who has been president of Croatia since 2015, she was the first woman to be elected to the office since the first multiparty elections in 1990. Aged 46 when elected, she also became the youngest person to assume the presidency. She previously served as a minister and was assistant to Nato’s secretary general before being elected president.
Kristalina Georgieva (Bulgarian, EPP) – Currently chief executive of the World Bank, economist Georgieva is highly respected in Brussels. She served as commissioner for international co-operation, humanitarian aid and crisis response and later as commission vice-president for budget and human resources. Importantly she is among the few available and acceptable candidates from eastern European states, and is affiliated with the EPP.
Charles Michel (Belgian, Renew Europe) – Spoken of as a favourite to succeed Tusk, the outgoing Belgian prime minister is the leader of the Francophone liberal party. He heads a caretaker government following his government’s collapse after a right wing Flemish ally refused to support the UN compact on migration. In 2000, he became minister of home affairs in the Walloon Government at 25, the youngest minister in Belgium’s history.
Lars Lokke Rasmussen (Danish, Renew Europe) – In his second term as Danish prime minister, he is leading a caretaker government following his party’s defeat in the recent general election, which saw gains for the left. He is a former leader of the liberal Venstre party. Seen as an unlikely choice.
Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Danish) – A graduate of the College of Europe and a former MEP who worked at the commission, the former prime minister of Denmark has all the executive experience required to head the council or the commission. Though her party is likely to win a national election in Denmark in June, Thorning-Schmidt is out of politics for now and heads the NGO Save the Children International.
António Costa (Portuguese S&D) – As the prime minister leading a coalition of the left since 2015, Costa has managed to combine fiscal discipline with measures to support growth, while reversing most of the austerity policies imposed by the previous centre-right administration. Part of the S&D team of co-ordinators trying to broker a jobs deal, he is seen as unlikely choice.
Stefan Lofven (Swedish S&D) – A former trade union leader who has been Swedish prime minister since 2014, he leads a minority government backed by the Greens. Also seen as an unlikely pick.
Klaus Iohannis (Romanian, EPP) – The Romanian president as been at war with his country’s Social Democratic Party government over its controversial attempts to row back on anti-corruption measures. His departure to Brussels would leave a big gap in domestic politics. A physics teacher and a school inspector before entering full-time politics, he was mayor of the historic city of Sibiu before being asked to lead the National Liberal Party. Despite internal turmoil, Romania is just completing a relatively successful first presidency of the EU.
Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuanian, Independent) – Before being elected president of Lithuania in 2009, she served as finance minister and was a European commissioner. She is coming to the end of her time in office, is one of the most experienced women politicians in the EU and is seen as a possible replacement for Tusk. She is known for her straightforwardness and some who have dealt with her suggest is somewhat difficult to get on with, not exactly a team builder. She does not have support of the Visegrad group of east European countries. Her main problem is that she is an independent, although seen as close to the EPP. In addition, she does not have a relationship with the parliament. With competition for the few jobs between the parties so intense, in appears unlikely she will get a look-in.
Josep Borrell (Spanish, S&D) – A former president of the European Parliament, he is Spain’s acting foreign minister. He is a member of the Spanish Socialist Party, whose success in the recent elections has raised expectations that Spain could get one of the top jobs.
Maroš Šefcovic (Slovak, S&D) – He was Slovak ambassador to the EU from 2004 to 2009, when he was appointed commissioner. Šefcovic was beaten by Timmermans for the S&D spitzenkandidat slot. A few weeks ago, he lost a battle to become the new president of Slovakia. He is pitching now for the High Representative job but is unlikely to beat his socialist colleague. His election campaigning against LGBT rights and for the deportation of migrants would make opposition in the parliament certain. He will be renominated for the commission.
Among those also occasionally mentioned in the international press but believed to be not interested, this time at least, or are regarded as indispensable on the domestic scene, are Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, IMF head Christine Lagarde and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has repeatedly told friends she want to retire.
Who is in the running for the European Central Bank presidency?
This job goes to someone who is not a political appointee and who has to be a senior banker. The nomination will be important in terms of geographical and gender balance. Mario Draghi, the incumbent who leaves after eight turbulent years, stabilised the euro during the crisis by pledging that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to stop the euro zone from breaking up.
Jens Weidmann, president of Germany’s Bundesbank. Seen as favourite if Germany is not going to get the commission job but provokes strong reactions for his hawkish views, particularly on the ECB’s controversial bond-buying policy in support of monetary easing. Weidman last week surprised observers by telling weekly Die Zeit that the court of justice of the EU had determined that the policy was legal and it is “current policy”. French president Emmanuel Macron and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras have made it clear they do not want him.
François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of Banque de France. A high-flying public official, he has served as a senior economic adviser to several ministers, including time as chief of staff of finance minister Dominique Strauss Kahn, and in French representation in Brussels.
Benoît Cœuré, ECB executive board member since 2011. A French economist and supporter of the monetary policy of the ECB, including the use of monetary easing. In 2012, Cœuré was named to manage ECB market operations, as well as payment systems and market infrastructures, and economic research.
Erkki Liikanen, former Bank of Finland governor. A former Social Democrat politician, he was nominated to the European Commission in 1994 where he was responsible for budget, personnel and administration. As governor of the Bank of Finland from 2004, he served as a member of the ECB governing council. In 2012, he was asked to chair a group of experts to assess the need for structural reforms to the EU banking sector.
Klaas Knot, Dutch central bank governor. An economist who worked for the IMF in Washington, on whose board he also now serves. A member of the governing council of the ECB, he is also vice-chair of the Fiscal Stability Board, the global group of policymakers and regulators that makes recommendations on financial rules to the G20 countries
Who is in the running for the European Commission?
Member states individually nominate their commissioners, usually after the new commission president is agreed, in a process that involves discussion on which jobs might be available should they nominate specific candidates. But promises of prestigious vice-presidencies – which have important co-ordinating roles in the large 28-member commission – may play a part in brokering a deal on the top jobs and recompensing the disappointed.
Ireland is expected to renominate Phil Hogan – a Cabinet discussion of the issue is due after the new commission president is agreed, the Taoiseach said last week.
Among those already nominated for the next commission are the Czech Republic’s justice commissioner Vera Jourova, Hungary’s justice minister Laszlo Trocsanyi; Slovakia’s current commissioner Maroš Šefcovic; Bulgaria’s commissioner Mariya Gabriel; and Latvia’s commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis. The Finns have proposed former finance minister Jutta Urpilainen.
The commission is approved by the European Parliament after hearings in September.
*This article originally stated Apple had been fined. This error was corrected on July 1st, 2019.