As the EU prepares to replace its top officeholders, the union needs leaders who can confront bullying international actors, navigate through a turbulent political scene, and rebuild public trust in the European project. Essentially, there will be three games running in parallel, but they will all have to come together in the end.
- The Inter-Institutional Game
The first game is between the EU’s institutions. The European Parliament pulled off a constitutional coup in 2014 by imposing the lead candidate of the largest party group, Jean-Claude Juncker, as European Commission president. According to the EU treaties, it is the national leaders in the European Council who should propose a candidate to the parliament, “taking into account the elections.”
The main party groups, except the Liberals, would now like to build on this success and turn the lead candidate model into a permanent rule for selecting the Commission president, asserting that the next Commission president should be one of the lead candidates immediately after the 2019 elections. However, they did not rally behind the candidate of the biggest group, Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party, and they did not threaten to veto anyone else.
- The Inter-Party Game
The second game involves the EU’s party groups. The biggest two, the center-right European People’s Party and center-left Social Democrats, emerged from the 2019 elections significantly weakened. They no longer jointly have a majority in the parliament and will have to turn to other parties, particularly the Liberals or the Greens, to pass legislation.
Still, the role of the two largest parties remains crucial, as there is neither a leftist majority against the European People’s Party nor a credible rightist one against the Social Democrats. The Liberals and Greens will try to make the most of their potential kingmaker role but risk being played off against each other. Whereas the Liberals will join the fight for the top jobs, the Greens will probably place their main emphasis on shaping the policy platform.
- The Game of the Leaders
The third game considers the slew of EU leadership roles together. Before the lead candidate initiative was started, it was up to the European Council to put together a package of the EU’s top positions. Most heads of state and government would like to revert to this model, taking several factors into account: party groupings, geographic distribution, big and small member states, members and nonmembers of the Eurozone, and gender. While not all member states will field candidates for these positions, everyone has a stake in the process.
Overall, in the ideal scenario, the parliament would come up with a candidate for the Commission president who has a majority of members of the European Parliament behind him or her and the European Council will have little choice but to accept the proposal. However, as the three biggest groups each have a prominent candidate with significant support, an early compromise will be hard to reach.
The European Council has tasked its outgoing president, Donald Tusk, to act as a game master whose stated objective was to assemble an acceptable package in time for the European Council session on 21 June. The real risk is that the multilevel institutional wrangling will distract from the true objective of the process: to bring together the most qualified personalities to lead the EU institutions in the next five years that would be strong enough to confront bullying international actors. They need a reliable internal compass to steer through a turbulent and fragmented political scene, and they have to be able to explain what the EU is about and to rebuild public trust.
‚Time for Strong New EU Leaders‘ – Commentary by Stefan Lehne – Carnegie Europe.