A fitting leader for a new-style commission

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt says the classic EU leadership race now playing out in the media is misleading and outdated. What’s at stake is the mandate to be given to the next European Commission.

Speculation is rife over who’ll win the EU’s top job and shape its policymaking agenda. Will the next president of the European Commission be a man or a woman, from the Left, Right or Centre, from a big country or small? Above all, will he or she be a powerful new force driving Europe forward, or a poodle at the beck and call of squabbling governments?

This game is played out every five years. Commentators juggle with shifts in parties’ electoral strengths, intergovernmental rivalries and candidates’ degrees of charisma to create docu-dramas of the European Union’s inner workings.

But now this familiar pattern is misleading. It looks as if matching up to a new job description will define the winning candidate more than origins and affiliations.

[C]hoosing its new president and vice-presidents should be predicated on their ability to deliver results

Behind the horse-trading that journalists prefer to report, the more significant development among EU member governments is a shared recognition that the next commission must tackle fundamental problems in four key areas: 

  • Combating climate change by restoring the EU’s international environmental leadership.
  • Reviving the EU economy and ensuring the eurozone’s long-term stability.
  • Restructuring social and fiscal policies to address the connected challenges of ageing and immigration.
  • Devising radical policy initiatives for the Digital Age, including global models for cyber regulation and how to shift taxation from labour to robots and AI.

The idea now gaining ground is that these policy areas should spearhead the incoming commission’s programme, and that choosing its new president and vice-presidents should be predicated on their ability to deliver results.

Most EU-27 governments have digested Brexit in political terms, even if its economic consequences lie ahead. With Brexit sidelined, they are now turning their attention to structural threats. Although deep divisions remain between them, they recognise that only EU-level policies can be effective.

The betting odds are therefore shifting in favour of Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager. As the EU’s competition policy watchdog, her credentials on regulating the digital marketplace are impeccable, and she has also championed more effective environmental policies.

Vestager is emerging as a new-style EU boss. Rather than step straight into Jean-Claude Juncker’s shoes as a traditional presidential figure, she has the know-how and drive to create an inner-circle – strictly speaking, a ‘junta’ – of four vice-presidents to take overall responsibility for the areas listed above.

Nothing is certain in politics, least of all at EU level

They would have the authority to streamline the commission’s ungainly array of directorates-general into a more coherent architecture. The new narrative would be to lift officials’ eyes from day-to-day preoccupations to focus instead on a 25-year horizon.

Her bid’s success will depend on whether the EU’s national leaders remain committed to far-reaching strategic action. That would mean accepting a revival of the commission’s diminished authority, so there’s always a risk that they’ll once again opt for a weaker president from a smaller state.

The past 20 years or so have seen the European Commission slip to being a secretariat for an increasingly intergovernmental EU. But with Europe heading towards 21st century pressures that cannot effectively be countered by any single country, the auspices for a comeback by the Brussels commission are encouraging.

Vestager’s chances have been improved by recent throws of the political dice. The rival German and French bids for the commission presidency are cancelling each other out. Germany’s Manfred Weber, the centre-right EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, is widely dismissed as too low profile and inexperienced.

At the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to block France’s preferred candidate – the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier – because she would be embarrassed to accept any other centre-right politician. The face-saving deal for Paris would be to move François Villeroy de Galhau from the Banque de France to become president of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

Nothing is certain in politics, least of all at EU level. But the increasingly attractive prospect is of a woman who might burnish the European Commission’s image, and who has won popularity as the steely defender of consumers’ interests against those of US-based internet behemoths.

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