New EU Leadership: A Choice of Continuity

The EU proudly portrays itself as a community ruled by law, and follows strict rules in its operations. Every five years, however, it faces the challenge of selecting new leaders.

The process opens with European Parliament elections. In 2019 this took place in late May. The vote shapes the ruling majority that will determine the positions the legislative body adopts on all EU domestic and external matters that fall within its purview. In addition, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) split into groups that distribute positions at the top and within the standing committees in proportion to their representation.

After that, the European Council, formed by the heads of state or government of the EU member states, appoints a president for a two-and-a-half year term with a possible extension to five years. The European Council President is the highest ranking official in the EU. The holder of this position is believed to have the greatest authority, since this person is tasked with presiding over heads of state and government, organizing their work and building consensus among them. This role used to be performed by the state holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and its head. When the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009, the EU changed the rule, believing that it had a negative effect on the integrity, stability and effectiveness of EU political action.

At the same time, the European Council selects candidates for the positions of European Commission President, High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the President of the European Central Bank (ECB). In terms of authority, the Commission can be compared to a national government, which means that its president plays a defining role in managing the EU’s day-to-day operations. In many instances, it is the European Commission that acts in lieu of the 28 member states, including in drafting EU regulations, holding talks, fighting unfair competition and ensuring compliance with EU legal standards.

The High Representative heads the self-reliant European External Action Service, chairs the councils of the foreign and defense ministers, and is responsible for developing and implementing the common foreign, security and defense policies of the EU.

The position of the ECB President has become increasingly important. The member states had no alternative to transferring a huge part of their sovereign powers in finance, lending and monetary policy and placing their major banks and banking systems under the ECB’s direct supervision amid the global economic and sovereign debt crises, considering that the member states were not always successful in their attempts to overcome these challenges. The economic resilience and stability of the member countries depends on the ECB’s able maneuvering and unconventional solutions.

The selection of candidates is an extremely complicated and delicate process that requires time and strenuous effort. A great number of often incompatible factors have to be considered along with the need to accomplish the all but impossible feat of ensuring equitable representation for large, medium and small countries and various regions: Old and New Europe, North and South, etc.

In addition, the candidates for these top positions have to reflect the alignment of forces within the European Parliament and the outcomes of the election to the parliament so as not to be rejected by specific parliamentary groups or the ruling majority. Other requirements include a strong representation of women, ensuring that certain heads of state or government do not oppose specific candidates, and that future dignitaries have the required background, be prepared for the job, have knowledge of EU political mechanisms, and have the necessary skills.

As we can see, there are an incredible number of requirements that have to be fulfilled. It is no surprise then that it took an entire month for the 28 to agree on the candidacies. Talks got underway immediately after the election to the European Parliament, and the entire month of June was wasted on exploring various combinations, unsuccessful meetings, sleepless nights and quarrels before they finally arrive at a compromise on July 2.

The European Council elected former Prime Minister of Belgium Charles Michel as itd hrad. Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was proposed for the post of EU Commission President, while France’s Christine Lagarde, who is currently serving her second term as IMF Managing Director, was nominated for ECB President. Finally, Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell was nominated for the position of EU High Representative.

The next step is to have these candidates approved by the European Parliament. In the past, the legislative body never opposed the choices made by the European Council, but times are changing. In fact, the European Parliament has already adjusted some plans. It was initially planned that a MEP representing New Europe was to become the next president of the European Parliament, since there were no other representatives from this region in the new lineup. After all, five years ago, it was no coincidence that former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk got the high office of President of the European Council. Today this is seen as even more important considering the conflict between the two parts of the EU. Nevertheless, the European Parliament elected an Italian as its next President. Interestingly, the new speaker represents the opposition in his country.

The two leading groups within the ruling coalition, the Socialists and the Greens, were clearly dissatisfied with the lineup proposed by the European Council and their political affiliation. The Socialists complained about the poor representation of their political family that received the “unimportant” position of European Parliament President and the Union’s Common Foreign Policy that has yet to materialize. The Liberals, they argued, were treated to much more influential positions, while having the third-largest parliamentary group.

Despite the unprecedented success of the Green parties during the European elections, they did not receive any positions. Moreover, they believe that Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen knows nothing about European politics and is only capable of uttering vague generalities. An interview with Ursula von der Leyen did nothing to change their view. Furthermore, the MEPs considered that she was not very honest when she talked about her commitment to the climate dossier, since she was unable to provide any details.

However, this struggle will not end with the election of the highest ranking EU officials. Next, the European Commission President will face the task of selecting the remaining 25 members of the Commission in a dialogue with the national governments and guided by the same criteria.

Overall, this is business as usual. That said, there are a number of distinctions in the EU’s efforts to appoint its new leaders. European voters used to show little interest in the European Parliament elections. To remedy this situation, the EU went to great lengths during the past election to attract more voters by coming up with a new intrigue: all European political parties had to designate heads of their party lists, and the head from the wining party was to be appointed EU Commission president. In an instant, this made the election campaign much more interesting for the electorate by adding a personal dimension to the vote, while the media had something to report.

In addition, it was essential for the EU to make the election to the European Parliament more democratic. Accordingly, people voted to elect not only the MEPs, but also the head of the EU’s executive.

The latest election followed the same scenario. Germany’s MEP Manfred Weber, who headed the European People’s Party in the previous European Parliament, won the primaries and headed his party’s list during the election. He worked hard during the campaign, appeared in televised debates and played by the rules.

However, the heads of state and government changed the rules. A totally different person emerged as a candidate for the EU Commission presidency after lengthy talks. Multiple arguments were put forward to justify this questionable step. It was said that Manfred Weber lacked the experience required for the job, or that his business qualities were inadequate. Some argued that he bore part of the blame for the relative defeat of the European People’s Party and Christian Democrats, who won fewer seats compared to the previous legislature.

However, all these excuses were implausible. As a matter of fact, President of France Emmanuel Macron and some other national leaders did not want to be bound by anything in the selection process. This could dent the image and prestige of the election to the European Parliament and the European project in general.

The unpredictable outcome was another specific feature of the selection process. No one expected it, and it came as a surprise. Not a single name from the final five-person list surfaced even once at any of the stages in the selection process. A number of observers argued that the new team was made up of “second-rank” politicians, while the initial candidates had a higher profile and more experience.

For example, this is true of the outgoing First Vice-President of the European Commission Franciscus Timmermans. He did everything in the Commission, since Jean-Claude Juncker delegated all the day-to-day work to him. He is unrivaled in terms of his experience and qualification. But Poland and Hungary opposed his candidacy, refusing to forgive him for criticizing their violations of the EU’s fundamental values.

The same applies to France’s Michel Barnier. Emmanuel Macron went to great lengths to promote his candidacy, since Michel Barnier has been working for the European Commission for ages. He was the one who ensured the success of the Convention in 2000 on drafting a new constitution for the EU. He also acted as the EU’s Chief Negotiator in the Brexit talks with the UK. The current Bundesbank Governor was regarded as a perfect candidate for the position of ECB President, etc.

We will find out whether the new team actually consists of second-rate officials once they get down to work. In fact, there is a significant body of arguments to the contrary. Primarily, the heads of state or government succeeded in agreeing on these positions. Besides, all of the newly appointed officials have their own strong points. For example, the Belgian has been prepared for the environment he will face in the European Council by the political landscape in his country. He always had to focus on finding compromise and consensus instead of lording it around. Christine Lagarde has immense experience in managing global finance, and has also served in top positions at home in France.

There is a critical point that has been left in the shadow. In the comments on the outcomes of the selection process by the European Council, Russian analysts argued that Moscow had little to expect from the newly appointed officials. None of them will seek to improve relations with Russia. They are all known for their harsh statements regarding the Kremlin, and Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. However, this is not something that has to be emphasized.

First, all the new leaders are part of the EU’s political elite. They are mainstream politicians who share the view of the EU’s political establishment in general, not its specific representatives. Second, what matters are actions, not words. For example, Jean-Claude Juncker called Vladimir Putin his personal friend and has a great attitude toward Russia and appreciates its culture. Still, he was unable to turn the general mood among people he worked with. Third, people tend to change, especially when they gain more responsibility. Fourth, the EU’s foreign policy is shaped by the European capitals, with which Moscow maintains close contacts, rather than the bureaucrats in Brussels. And finally, the new appointees are not tied to the mistakes of their predecessors, and cannot be blamed for them; they can turn the page and must seize this opportunity.

Instead, let us stress that the EU’s recent appointments show that Brussels is no longer afraid of the Euro-sceptics that will be fewer in number once the UK leaves the European Parliament. Brussels also believes that the European project is not as threatened by nationalists, populists and the far right as it used to be. They had quite a modest showing in the recent elections and cannot hope to aspire to the role of game changers.

All in all, the EU member states are committed to consolidating the EU, enhancing its efficiency, competitiveness and international standing, as well as promoting deeper integration. All five newly appointed officials are strong advocates of the European project, which will define the EU’s planning horizon for the next five years. This has to be taken into consideration.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.