Battle for European Commission presidency reaches fever pitch

Written by Martin Banks on 26 June 2019 in News
News

As the clock ticks down to the appointment of a new European Commission President, speculation is rife as to which candidate will secure that all-important Brussels top job.

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Amid continuing uncertainty over whether the so-called Spitzenkandidat system will survive, the new leader of the Socialists and Democrats in Parliament, Iratxe García, says there is “still room for manoeuvre.”

“We call on national leaders to make an effort to find a compromise in the spirit of the EU treaties and the European democracy,” she said.

“It was a big achievement for Parliament to have its role recognised in the Lisbon treaty and we must preserve the link between the majority in Parliament and the President of the European executive branch.”


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“We need to start working on policies as soon as possible so we hope that the institutional blockage will be solved ahead of the Parliamentary plenary meeting on 2 July,” García added.

A series of crunch meetings this week will, it is hoped, resolve the increasingly muddled impasse on who becomes the Commission’s next President.

This comes after the failure of last week’s EU summit in Brussels to propose a compromise candidate to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker in what is regarded as the EU’s top post.

The focus has now shifted to other meetings taking place today and in the coming days where, it is hoped, agreement can be reached on a candidate.

“Vestager’s betting odds have improved from 20/1 last October to 2/1 now. She was a late entrant to the race, announcing her candidacy only on the night of the European elections”

The EPP’s candidate for the job, group leader Manfred Weber, has joined a growing chorus of calls from MEPs to save the much-vaunted Spitzenkandidat system under which the candidate of the European elections winner, the EPP, must be taken into account in deciding the Commission presidency.

Weber said this week, “It would be a huge setback if decisions in the EU now go back to diplomats’ backrooms.”

“Now it depends on MEPs,” he said, adding that adhering to the Spitzenkandidat system is vital for the “urgently-needed democratisation of the EU.”

Weber was due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, CDU chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and EPP chairman Joseph Daul later on Wednesday where his candidacy is expected to be on the agenda.

A meeting of G20 leaders in Japan on Thursday, attended by Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and some EU leaders such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, will be another chance to discuss the vexed issue.

Tusk, when he returns to Brussels later this week, will then meet group leaders in Parliament in the official format of the Conference of Presidents before he chairs a specially-convened summit of EU leaders on Sunday.

According to a well-placed EU official, this is when Tusk hopes to finally be able to propose a single candidate for the Commission presidency.

It is only when the Commission post is decided that other top EU jobs, such as Council President and the High Representative, are also likely to be resolved.

A decision is also expected next week on the new President of Parliament, with frontrunners thought to be former Alde leader Guy Verhofstadt and Irish EPP member Mairead McGuinness.

“This is a very tight race and there are many political heavyweights in the running for the EU’s top job. Trends in the betting markets show a clear swing in favour of Vestager and Barnier” Maarten Haijer, Secretary General of the European Gaming and Betting Association (EGBA)

Many now regard Weber’s chance of clinching the Commission job to be rapidly fading, due to fierce opposition from some EU leaders, notably French president Emmanuel Macron, who has publicly questioned his experience for such a senior position.

Despite this, Weber has not given up hope of landing the plum role, insisting that his candidacy should be taken seriously as he is the lead candidate of the EPP which emerged again as the single biggest group after May’s European elections.

Weber has sought to reinforce his credentials in op eds he has written this week for the German “Welt” newspaper.

He wrote, “It was absolutely transparent who was to lead the new Commission for the EPP and with what profile in terms of content. Every voter had the opportunity to know who would be in charge if the EPP won the election: namely Manfred Weber as President of the Commission.”

The Spitzenkandidat system “has allegedly been buried,” he wrote, adding, “So far, those who want to prevent something have won. Constructive approaches and proposals that also have a chance of acceptance in the European Parliament are a long way off.”

In a tweet, Weber also urged the Socialists and Liberals to “show that they stand for Parliamentary democracy in Europe,” saying, “It would be tragic if they put the interest of some capitals above the interests of a newly-elected strong Parliament.”

Chances of the Socialists’ choice, Frans Timmerman, being appointed Commission President is also now thought to be on the wane, leaving the strong possibility of a non-Spitzenkandidat to emerge in the coming days.

This could be Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, although many still fancy EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, from Denmark, who, according to the European Betting and Gambling Association, is a firm second favourite, behind Weber.

Vestager’s betting odds have improved from 20/1 last October to 2/1 now. She was a late entrant to the race, announcing her candidacy only on the night of the European elections.

If successful, she would become the first ever female President of the Commission, something that is thought to be working strongly in her favour.

However, like any candidate she must win the support of a majority in Parliament.

Maarten Haijer, Secretary General of the European Gaming and Betting Association (EGBA), said, “This is a very tight race and there are many political heavyweights in the running for the EU’s top job. Trends in the betting markets show a clear swing in favour of Vestager and Barnier.”

Further comment came from Matthew Shaddick, Head of Politics at Ladbrokes, who said, “Weber is still joint favourite, but the shrewd money has been put on the EPP’s Michel Barnier and ALDE’s Margrethe Vestager, whose odds have both improved sharply.”

Tusk is said to be determined to reach agreement at Sunday’s EU summit, not least with Parliament deciding next Wednesday on its own presidency.

Meanwhile, a survey commissioned by the EPP found that a large majority of respondents agree or strongly agree that the Spitzenkandidat process should be respected in deciding the next Commission presidency.

This ranges from 96 percent in Greece to 78 percent in the Netherlands. Some 95 percent of Spaniards agreed, 90 percent of Poles, 85 percent both in France and Germany, and 82 percent in the Czech Republic.

Support for the process is, according to the survey, also strong among Renew Europe’s supporters, the new parliamentary group that now includes Macron’s En Marche party (LREM).

Three out of four, when asked if it was important that an MEP should become President, said this was very or rather important.

About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at The Parliament Magazine

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