EU’s top jobs: What you need to know about Von der Leyen, Metsola, Costa and Kallas

The top jobs for the European Commission, European Parliament, European Council and the EU's foreign affairs are all up for grabs. We've profiled the big-name politicians set to lead the bloc's most important institutions.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas at the EU summit in Brussels end of June.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

11 Jul 2024

Last month, voters from Lisbon to Tallinn picked their representatives for the next European Parliament.  The quinquennial legislative turnover means top jobs across EU institutions are set for a shake up, too. 

Taking the outcome of the European Parliament elections into account, the EU's national leaders were quick to pick their favourites. Starting at the top, they backed Ursula von der Leyen for a second term as European Commission president.  

At their summit following elections, they also chose António Costa, a former Portuguese prime minister, to take over from Charles Michel as president of the European Council. Kaja Kallas, the current prime minister of Estonia, is under consideration to serve as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.  She would replace Josep Borrell. 

Both Von der Leyen and Kallas will need the support of a majority of MEPs in the European Parliament to be able to assume their respective roles.  

Separately, the European People's Party (EPP) nominated one of their own, Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola, for a second term as president of the European Parliament. Since the centre-right political group won the most seats in this year’s election, she is all but certain to keep her job.  

The candidates themselves did not respond to The Parliament’s request for comment. Here's a helpful breakdown of those likely to lead the next EU mandate.

President of the European Commission: Ursula von der Leyen 

As the leader of the EU’s executive branch, the president sets the political agenda and represents the Commission on the international stage. Ursula von der Leyen began her first term in this role, in 2019, in an unusual way. She wasn't the Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, of the EPP group to which she belongs. Still, the former German defence minister won over 383 MEPs (she needed 374 votes) to support her candidacy.  

Five years later, Von der Leyen is a foregone conclusion—at least for some. And unlike in 2019, this time around she was the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat. 

“Von der Leyen was the obvious choice, as Spitzenkandidat of the EPP, the biggest group that emerged as one of the winners of the elections,” Johannes Greubel, senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based think tank, European Policy Centre, told The Parliament in an email.  

He noted that no other names were put forward, which facilitated the process. 

Even though no one is necessarily thrilled about the choice, “von der Leyen remains the candidate that works for everybody,” Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Affairs, told The Parliament. Von der Leyen, however, had to “accept some instructions,” she said, including from her own EPP.  

Her next mandate will likely focus more on security and competitiveness. The Green Deal, which Von der Leyen once referred to as a “man of the moon moment,” might take a backseat due to centre- and far-right pressure. 

“She doesn't really have the kind of the political space to do anything very creative,” Dennison said, adding: “She needs to kind of keep a steady hand on support for Ukraine, keep the enlargement process on course and try and come up with some kind of compromise budget that keeps everybody happy.”  

Baggage from her first term is likely to carry over into a possible second. From Pfizer to Pieper, Von der Leyen is battling a number of “-gate” scandals that has put her at the centre of investigations and opponents’ attacks. She has been criticized for a lack of transparency and caginess with the media, even as she has advocated for fundamental rights.  

Von der Leyen’s second term is not set in stone. She needs the support of at least an absolute majority in the European Parliament. That's 361 votes. Even if all EPP lawmakers vote for her—which is not a guarantee—she will still need the support of other political groups, such as liberal Renew Europe, the Greens or the Socialists & Democrats (S&D).  If Von der Leyen attracts votes from the far-right European Reformists and Conservatives (ECR), it could be a deal breaker for the other groups. 

The election is set to take place on 18 July, during the first plenary of the new European Parliament. MEPs will vote in a secret ballot.  

President of the European Parliament: Roberta Metsola  

Another EU official likely to stick around is European Parliament President Roberta Metsola. The Maltese MEP came into office in January 2022 following the death of then–president David Sassoli. Among other things, the president chairs the plenary sessions and represents the parliament as an institution. 

At a gathering last month, the EPP nominated Metsola as their candidate for the role. Additional nominations can come from other political groups, or at least 38 MEPs, but as of deadline Metsola is the sole candidate.  

Metsola, a lawyer in European law, has been an MEP since 2013. Those who knew her then, such as Thomas Thaler, a former advisor to EPP lawmakers, recall a woman who is up to speed on the issues and meets tense situations with a sense of humour.  

"She does not shy away from travelling to crisis regions and is someone who is very open with the media and communicates very loudly and clearly what parliament's concerns are,” Thaler, now a senior associate director at APCO, an advisory firm, told The Parliament. “I think she will stay true to her line over the next two years.”  

Metsola's re-election could be complicated by the doling out of top jobs across political groups. If fellow EPP member Von der Leyen stays on as Commission president, ECFR's Dennison said it could be tricky to let Metsola keep leading Parliament. However, other groups, such as S&D and Renew, are likely to play ball, Thaler said. 

Whether they do will become clearer on 16 July, when the parliament starts its next plenary session and votes for its president via secret ballot.  

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy: Kaja Kallas   

The next High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) could come from a Baltic state for the first time. Kaja Kallas, currently prime minister of Estonia and a member of Estonia’s liberal Reform Party (Renew), is set to take over from Josep Borrell.  

Like other Commissioners, she will need the approval of the European Parliament. The HR shapes the bloc’s foreign and security policy and is one of the vice presidents of the European Commission.  

Kallas is an “exciting appointment,” Dennison said. Kallas has been playing a prominent role both in NATO and EU circles, she added, so fits the HR profile well. Estonia, once forcibly part of the Soviet Union, shares a border with Russia and feels acutely threatened by its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Under Kallas, it has been one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters, so far giving one per cent of its GDP in aid.  

For Kallas, it may be a good time to get out of her home country. A part of Estonian political royalty—she is the daughter of Siim Kallas, a former prime minister—Kallas has been at the centre of scandal. Last fall, it came to light that her husband’s company allegedly kept doing business with Russia

“In Estonia, the idea is that she needs to go. Everybody's agreed that she needs to get something in Europe,” Viljar Veebel, a researcher at the Tartu-based Baltic Defence College, told The Parliament.  

Just 16 per cent of Estonians support Kallas, according to a January poll by Turu-uuringute, a research company. “She has no chances to be re-elected,” Veebel said. 

As HR, Veebel anticipates that her focus will remain the war Ukraine, which means that questions around migration and relations with North Africa might be neglected.  

The challenge now, ECFR’s Dennison said, is to win approval of the parliament because her Renew group dropped from third- to fifth-largest group in the parliament. 

President of the European Council: António Costa  

The only one of these jobs that is already a sure thing is president of the European Council. EU national leaders elected former Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa to succeed Charles Michel from Belgium. Starting in December, he will, for instance, chair meetings and seek consensus within the Council, made up of EU national leaders. 

Costa, a member of the Portuguese socialist party, was prime minister from 2015 until earlier this year. In November 2023 he announced his resignation due to a scandal he was implicated in. Costa has not been charged, though the investigation is ongoing. 

Costa is an ''extremely good negotiator,” Paulo Trigo Pereira, a former Portuguese MP aligned with the socialist party, told The Parliament.  

In 2015 and 2019 elections, for instance, the socialists didn’t win an absolute majority, yet Costa managed to forge agreements with several left-wing parties to govern. Pereira, who leads the Institute of Public Policy, a Lisbon-based think tank, said he expects Costa to avoid pushing for any radical changes at the Council. 

He's known for maintaining good relationships across political families, Dennison said, such as with French President Emmanuel Macron, despite their contrasting worldviews. As president of the European Council, “he will be a fairly kind of honest broker,” Dennison said. 

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