The EU needs a global leader, not a Spitzenkandidat

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

In years past, when the EU’s future leadership was under discussion, the search was at least aimed at finding someone who could win worldwide recognition and respect. That’s not the case today, even though the need for a commanding European figure is greater than ever. With the likes of Donald Trump strutting the global stage, a tough and no-nonsense figure who will speak out for Europe is crucially important.
But one wouldn’t think so when the Spitzenkandidat process is the focus of earnest debate. Europe’s penchant for navel-gazing never ceases to amaze, and it is being brought into embarrassingly sharp relief by the media focus on the likely candidates to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president.
Two, possibly three, largely unknown politicians have so far put their names forward: the EPP’s German leader Manfred Weber, Slovakia’s current EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič to represent the Socialist Group, and maybe Austria’s former socialist chancellor Christian Kern. None are names that ring bells in Washington and Beijing, or indeed anywhere else.

The EU is in any case looking down the wrong end of the telescope

Name-recognition around the world is important, but it’s not the only criterion. There’s the charisma needed to connect with Europe’s disaffected, and also the new thinking and voter-appeal that a woman could bring. Denmark’s EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager is challenging the Spitzenkandidat system and seems intent on throwing her hat in the ring. If so, she will doubtless liven things up.
Will any of them succeed? The centre-right EPP group and the socialists both risk being dislodged from their dominance of the European Parliament by next year’s elections. The two blocs won’t be wiped out, but Eurosceptic populists from across Europe are predicted to oust many candidates of the traditional mainstream parties.
The EU is in any case looking down the wrong end of the telescope. It’s a serious mistake to think that the European Parliament’s two largest political groupings should ‘democratically’ select the front-runners for the top EU job.
Juncker himself secured the commission presidency thanks to the Spitzenkandidat system when it was introduced five years ago as a power-play by MEPs flexing their inter-institutional muscles. It seemed better than the secretive behind-closed-doors selection of the Commission’s chief by EU heads of government, but it was never hailed as the answer to Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’.
What matters more is the international stature and reputation of would-be Commission presidents, not their party affiliation. Donald Trump has described Juncker as a “tough, tough cookie”, and it’s clear that chemistry between leaders plays an important part. Juncker has also built up good working and personal relationships with the leaders of Japan, China and India who seem to be spending more time together in different world fora.
The EU is arguably doing better than expected on the world stage, thanks in part to US President Trump’s erratic policies and to the effects of Brexit. Credit is also due to the EU’s redoubled efforts to assert its global credentials.

Two, possibly three, largely unknown politicians have so far put their names forward

But that isn’t not enough. Asians are still confused over the powers of all the EU “presidents” who show up at international events. They also contrast the EU’s seemingly humdrum summits with the pomp when their own leaders meet the likes of Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Theresa May.
To be taken more seriously in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Europe has to step up its game. As well as better policies, this requires a more forceful, quotable, identifiable and larger-than-life personality at the helm.
Nobody can yet tell how Juncker’s successor will be chosen. What we do know, though, is that the current line-up along with other names being mentioned don’t set anyone’s pulses racing in Europe or beyond.
If Europe is to matter on the global stage, the next Commission president must be able to convince world opinion that he or she is not just up to the job of representing Europe but also of making the EU exciting, interesting and worth listening to. Little-known politicians, however promising they may be, just won’t do.

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