At one level, the succession battle under way in Brussels is simply that: a bare-knuckle political fight for control of the key European institutions. But the standoff between EU leaders over the selection of new figureheads at the commission, the council and elsewhere is also a proxy war over the direction of the bloc in the next five years. At its heart are rival French and German views on the integration agenda, a challenge to the long supremacy of the conservative European People's Party (EPP) and a wider contest among mid-sized states to seize some of the power that the United Kingdom relinquished with its Brexit referendum.
EU leaders again failed to agree on nominees for the five positions – presidents of the commission, council, parliament and central bank, and chief diplomat – at their latest summit this week. Qualifications are one factor in the mix, but just as important are geographical balance, gender, party affiliation and national pride.
Everything will flow from the selection of a successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the commission, the EU's civil service. And if anything became clear in Brussels this week it was that Manfred Weber, the EPP's nominee for that key post, is almost certainly out of the running.
If the EPP, Weber's sponsor, opts for tit-for-tat retaliation it could take out two other potential compromise candidates, Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager, who have been nominated by the socialists and the liberals, respectively. That would be a shame; Vestager, the Danish competition commissioner who took on the tech giants, is a formidable candidate. But her removal from the reckoning could provide an opening for Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator and a long-time ally of Irish governments.
Much will rest on discussions between Paris and Berlin. Not since the appointment of Jacques Delors in 1984 have France and Germany agreed on a candidate for the commission president from the outset. But a deal without their blessing is inconceivable. If Macron succeeds in wresting the commission presidency from the EPP, will Chancellor Angela Merkel insist that no French candidate takes the helm at the commission or the central bank? Would Merkel's price be the installation of Jens Weidmann, the Bundesbank president, in the prized ECB post?
These questions matter. The EU is in internal flux. Brexit, the rise of the far-right and the weakening of the centre-right/centre-left duopoly threaten to radically reshape the bloc. It also faces era-defining challenges in climate change, terrorism, trade conflict and the digital revolution. The institutions’ leaders may not fix policy on their own, but they play a vital role in deciding priorities, setting the tone and shaping public perception of the union. Filling these vacancies well is more important than filling them quickly.