Candidates for President of the European Commission – where we stand in January 2014

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 15.00.34Back in the early summer of 2013 I wrote a detailed series of blog posts about the future President of the European Commission. There were posts about EPP, PES and other candidates. Overall those posts have stood up well over the last 6 months. But with the EP elections just over 4 months away, and with the new Commission to be decided shortly after, and with more and more jostling for top positions being covered by the newspapers (see FT earlier in January and FAZ today for example), it’s time to update the state of play.

Party of European Socialists (PES)
For the moment the PES position is clear: Martin Schulz is the top candidate, and if the PES wins the European elections they will seek to nominate him as Commission President. There were quite some problems with the transparency and democratic credentials of the process to select Schulz (as I analysed for Policy Network) but, for the coming months at least, Schulz’s position will not be challenged, formally at least, within the PES. He also was part of the negotiations to form the Große Koalition in Germany, and it seems Merkel can get on with him. Also as Derk Jan Eppink points out, Schulz can be strategic, has an instinct for power, has nothing to lose and only lacks the experience some other candidates bring.

For reasons I do not altogether understand – perhaps because she’s the only social democrat anyone’s heard of who’s not unpalatable? – the name of Helle Thorning-Schmidt keeps on coming back. The UK Labour Party would prefer her, Kinnock’s daughter in law, to Schulz. After all someone who’s been a principle-free, reasonably unsuccessful Prime Minister of Denmark is better than an old fashioned German social democrat, right? I suppose the selfie helped.

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
Here I must admit I was wrong, for I could not previously foresee how the Liberals would possibly want Olli Rehn, the Economic & Monetary Affairs Commissioner, as a Commission President candidate. But it seems he is in pole position to be their leading candidate. This of course could well be because the other candidate is Guy Verhofstadt, and choosing between those is like choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea. Anyway, Euractiv has an update on the state of play, and ALDE will decide which one to go for in a delegate vote from the member parties on 1st February.

As Dario Čepo and I have discussed on Twitter, Rehn could somehow slip between the PES and the EPP in the event of a very closely balanced electoral result. The prospect fills both Dario and I with dread – and we thought Barroso was bad!

The Greens
Maybe because the Greens know they are not actually going to get the Commission President job they have actually designed the best process to select a top candidate. The #GreenPrimary is an online poll, open until 28th January, open to anyone (even non-Greens) to select their two top candidates. There are 4 candidates standing – Rebecca Harms, Ska Keller, Monica Frassoni and José Bové. I have no idea who the favourite is among the four.

European Left
Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA is the candidate. He’s going to bring some fire to debates in the next few months, but he has even less chance of becoming Commission President than a Green.

European People’s Party
The prominent political force in the EU for at least the last decade, and the party of the current Commission President Barroso, it is nevertheless the EPP’s process to choose a candidate that is leading to the most head-scratching in Brussels at the moment. The party is supposed to choose a candidate with a delegate vosting system at its Dublin Congress 7-8 March. Merkel, apparently with some backing from Van Rompuy, is not too keen on a close connection between the EP election result and the Commission President nomination, fearing it will strengthen the Parliament cause inter-institutional conflicts (see the FT). This would only be a particular problem if the PES won the elections, yet the European Council remains dominated by EPP parties.

The challenge here too seems to be how to find a viable candidate. People like Michel Barnier (currently a Commissioner) and Jean Claude Juncker (former Luxembourg PM) have nothing to lose by putting their names forward. Viviane Reding also wants the job, but I think she’s about the only person who wants her to have it. Prime Ministers from the party such as Donald Tusk and Enda Kenny have distanced themselves from the role, not wanting to kill their national political careers by throwing their hats into the ring, only to then find another party wins the EP elections. Others like Jyrki Katainen and Christine Lagarde should not be fully ruled out either. Thankfully a third term for Barroso now seems totally out of the question though.

As the situation changes I will do my best to blog about it.

[UPDATE 15.1.2014, 1000]
I’ve been asked on Twitter about numerous candidates not mentioned in this blog entry – people like Valdis Dombrovskis, Dalia Grybauskaitė and Anders Fogh Rasmussen. This blog entry in no way excludes those people. If they are not mentioned it means I simply have heard no more about them that makes me change my views on them since the original blog entries on the subject of the EU’s top jobs. I was also asked about why there is no mention of the ECR in this blog entry – it’s because I see the future of the group in Brussels as being under some threat, as explained here.

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  2. Manuel Müller

    I agree with most of your analysis, but why do you think Rehn could be a compromise in case of a narrow result between PES and EPP? Even if the socialists don’t manage to get Schulz through, why should they accept a liberal austerian instead? I suppose most people in the PES would rather have Barnier, Juncker or Lagarde than Rehn…

  3. Evan O'Connell

    Jon, that’d be a good one actually – next UK commissioner. I know who SHOULD get the job – John Major, Paddy Ashdown or Ken Clarke – but yes, it’ll probably be someone like Andrew Mitchell.

    ECR doesn’t seem to be up for presenting a candidate. Rumours six months ago they’d put Vaclav Klaus forward, but these days I haven’t heard anything from anyone about a “conservative” candidate. Who would they run, anyway? A nobody like Zahradil or a Tory MEP or someone like that? A discredited former PM like Topolánek or Nečas? A nutjob like Kaczyński?

    As for the European Council… if the EPP comes out on top but not by much, expect Merkel to try to have her way and nominate Christine Lagarde, yes… otherwise I bet the lead candidate of the largest party in the EP post elections will be the next Commission president.

  4. Peter

    Does the ECR have a similar candidate process? Cameron was supposed to be hoping Kenny would throw his hat in (may be he still will).
    Isn’t this all just a bit of foreplay before the European Council really decides on who they do and don’t want? In that case, isn’t Verhofstadt dead in the water since the UK would veto him (again).
    Any ideas on the next UK commissioner? I guess Mitchel will now be hoping to return to Cabinet rather than being packed off on the Eurostar, given the evolution of the plebgate affair.

  5. Andrew Turvey

    Has anyone talked at all about doing a televised presidential debate? Just imagine, Barnier, Schulz, Rehn, Tsipras and Harms on a platform (or whoever they end up being of course). I’d watch that!

  6. Evan O'Connell

    RE Rehn and Verhofstadt – many parties (LibDems, FDP, etc) seem to be clearly divided between their leaderships (who want Rehn) and their MEPs (who want Verhofstadt). The ALDE Congress will be a fun one, because it’s really honestly not at all clear who’ll come out as the winner. I’d narrowly bet on Rehn, but I wouldn’t wager more than five quid on him.

  7. Evan O'Connell

    True, true. I just think that Barnier’s a poor candidate for the support of the CDU, the Dutch CDA, the Polish Civic Platform, the Czech TOP 09, etc… a “social gaullist” isn’t the kind of person most centre-right parties would want leading their campaign. Juncker’s certainly no market liberal but he’s more right-wing on economics than Barnier is!

    I’d suggest that it won’t be a binary choice between Barnier and Juncker. There’ll be at least one other candidate. And if Juncker doesn’t get the EPP nod in the end, it’ll be the bland third man (or woman) – Kenny, Katainen, Dombrovskis, or someone similar – and not Barnier…

    Of course I could be wrong, though, as I very often am.

  8. Jon

    Evan – your choice of word ‘dependable’ for Juncker is not the word I would choose. Yes, he may be a more classical Christian Democrat than Barnier, but he also has a reputation for making off the cuff comments than Barnier does. That’s not the definition of dependable!

  9. Evan O'Connell

    Barnier’s far more left wing on economic issues though. Can’t see CDU, Civic Platform and others picking him over the far more dependable Juncker.

  10. Jon

    Evan – no, Juncker has annoyed people over the years. Barnier hasn’t. So I reckon Barnier is a more likely (and more depressing) bet.

    Simon – really? Struck me that the list of supporters Rehn had was longer than I would have expected, and the parties backing Verhofstadt are not that numerous. Of the two only Rehn would be a compromise between EPP and PES though, so if ALDE does go for Verhofstadt then bang go their chances of getting the position.

  11. Simon Taylor


    You’re wrong about Rehn being the leading candidate for the ALDE nomination. Verhofstadt is in a much stronger position and many on the social liberal side of ALDE are terrified at the prospect of ALDE’s election campaign being led by Rehn who is seen as the embodiment of a colourless Brussels bureaucrat hellbent on imposing Austeritaet.



  12. Evan O'Connell

    Ok, so in other words, what’s your bet for the EPP? Your gut feeling? I still tend to think it’s more likely to be Juncker than Barnier, though Kenny certainly has a fantastic opportunity with the EPP Congress being held in Dublin. Grybuskaite’d be interesting (plus she’s up for reelection as president of Lithuania about the same time – she could always switch races) and I do hear Dombrovskis’s name pop up every now and then…