Let's end the EU leadership farce

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Ever since the end of Jacques Delors’ reign, Europeans have bemoaned the EU’s lack of leadership. We will soon be heading into the murky period from which the next batch of leaders will emerge, so there’s still time to make the whole process transparent and respectable. All it takes is political courage.
The first of the EU’s leadership dominoes has just fallen, with Portuguese finance minister Mario Centeno’s successful bid as the incoming Eurogroup president. There now follows a baffling and obscure game of three-dimensional chess in which nationality, gender and political affiliation score higher than talent or charisma.
Politicians in the EU’s top posts are often justifiably blamed for the Union’s waning popularity. If the quality of Commissioners were less patchy, then the EU executive might arguably enjoy greater prestige and authority. This is especially true of the European Commission’s president.
You don’t need to be a Brussels insider to know that Commission presidents are selected on the basis of three criteria ‒ one hotly denied and the other two widely known. The unacknowledged criterion is that troublemakers need not apply; many EU governments still remember how uncomfortable their lives were made by Delors’ gritty pursuit of closer integration.

The spitzenkandidaten system doesn’t address the EU’s principal problem ‒ that of finding leaders capable of wooing public opinion

After Delors, candidates needed to be a former prime minister. That’s now looking passé because of the overriding third criterion added in 2013 when the European Parliament imposed its spitzenkandidaten (top candidates) procedure. Bidders for the Commission presidency have to secure the backing of MEPs in their own parliamentary family, and the winning candidate is therefore the one whose grouping secures the greatest number of seats in the European elections. Hence Jean-Claude Juncker’s win as the candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).
The MEPs from across the political spectrum who advanced this innovation argued convincingly that it introduced a much-needed democratic dimension to what had previously been an inter-governmental exercise in horse-trading. But the spitzenkandidaten system doesn’t address the EU’s principal problem ‒ that of finding leaders capable of wooing public opinion.
On the contrary, it blocks candidates who may conceivably be able to do so. Looking forward to 2019, although it’s still early days so dark horses may yet emerge from the ranks of national politicians, they are at present so thin on the ground as to be non-existent. That leaves four potential candidates from within the EU itself, all of whom look to be ruled out under the present system.
One of them ticks the ex-premier box, and another the preferred gender box. They all to some extent have crowd-appeal, but not charisma. What they will need to have in common is a willingness to restore the EU’s momentum by defying obstructive EU member governments when necessary.
Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager reportedly has French president Emmanuel Macron’s backing, and in her current role of competition policy watchdog she’s very much the “people’s friend”. Michel Barnier has raised his profile and gained respect for his handling of the thorny Brexit negotiations. The Commission’s first vice-president Frans Timmermans is a Dutch polyglot whose firefighting abilities are proving invaluable, and then there’s another of Juncker’s VPs, the quietly competent Finnish ex-PM Jyrki Katainen.
None of them stands a chance unless the rules are altered. All hail from political parties electorally in retreat, and would most probably fall at the first fence in the spitzenkandidaten process. In Barnier’s case, although he’s an EPP member he would also need Macron’s support, and the president’s centrist party ‘La Republique en Marche!’ is so far uncommitted within the European Parliament.

You don’t need to be a Brussels insider to know that Commission presidents are selected on the basis of three criteria

All in all, choosing the EU’s leadership is a muddle that has everything to do with small time politics and little or no focus on selecting the right person for the job. Europe’s governments must therefore be persuaded to re-think it in time for 2019. Two key reforms are vital.
The first is that candidates for senior EU positions should publish a personal manifesto indicating their goals and proposed work programme. In national politics no one would contemplate running for election without that. The same should go for individual Commissioners once nominated by their government. They should compete on the merits of their proposals for the most important portfolios, rather than rely on the whims of the incoming Commission president.
The second major reform has long been mooted ‒ universal voting for the Commission president as part of the European Parliament elections. Unwieldy and complicated as it would surely be, forcing political parties in each of the parliamentary groupings to undertake grassroots- level campaigns on behalf of their own spitzenkandidat would address the ‘faceless and unelected’ slur that so bedevils the EU.

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