Prior to the 2014 European Parliament elections I examined all the runners and riders for President of the European Commission and other EU top jobs (2014 posts on President of the Commission: EPP, PES, Others | President of the European Council | High Rep for EU Foreign Policy).
Now, with 9 months to go until the European Elections 2019, and just over a year to go before a new Commission takes over from Juncker’s team, it is time to repeat the exercise. Who are the candidates, what are their strengths and weaknesses, and what are their chances of success? Juncker will not run again.
The Commission President will be selected through the so-called Spitzenkandidat process – Euractiv has a summary of how this will work this time here. With the European People’s Party (EPP) likely to be the largest group in the European Parliament after the elections, the Commission President is most likely to come from that party.
This first post will focus on the Commission, with further posts to then examine the President of the European Council and High Rep for EU Foreign Policy. The post builds on this Twitter thread and – as ever – comments, critique and questions are most welcome. Some of the individuals mentioned here are known to be candidates, while in other cases I have speculated as to who might put themselves forward.
- European People’s Party (EPP)
- Party of European Socialists (PES)
- Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
- European Greens
- European Left
- Not Included
European People’s Party (EPP)
Alexander Stubb (Wikipedia)
Kokoomus, Finland | ex-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, ex-MEP | Age: 50
Marathon running, social-media star Stubb is the moderniser in the field. A well known character in Brussels who would be considered towards the centre of the political spectrum (in contrast to, for example, Weber), he would be like a breath of fresh air to the Commission after the old man style of Juncker. Coming from a small EU Member State and a party there that has struggled recently would speak against him, as would his less than stellar period as Prime Minister. His avowed pro-Europeanism and generally liberal outlook would cause clashes with the more right wing parties within the EPP such as Fidesz.
Manfred Weber (Wikipedia)
CSU (Bavaria), Germany | Leader of the EPP Group in the EP | Age: 46
The preeminent centre-right politician in the European Parliament, Weber is a politician attempting a neverending balancing act – he is considered a pragmatist within his CSU party and a bridge builder towards Merkel and the CDU, just as others pull the CSU to the right. Meantime in Brussels has has continually defended Viktor Orbán and Fidesz and their place within the EPP. That he is relatively unknown outside the European Parliament will count against him, and – in contract to Stubb – his social media skills are horrid.
Peter Altmaier (Wikipedia)
CDU, Germany | Minister of Economy and Energy in Germany | Age: 60
When the idea was raised that Merkel might be willing to put forward Altmaier as a Commission President candidate, there was a collective sigh of relief – “he’s not Weber!” Jovial, a committed European federalist, and yet a determined and thoughtful politician, Altmaier would be a good call if the EPP wants a kind of back to the roots, Christian Democrat pro-EU character. Unlikely to be as much of a reformer as Stubb, or as conservative as Weber, he is nevertheless well connected in Brussels. But with the CDU’s poll rating weakening in Germany, can Merkel afford to send him to Brussels? And would the EPP accept someone who is so close to Merkel?
Christine Lagarde (Wikipedia)
Les Républicains, France | Managing Director of the IMF | Age: 62
A former Minister of Finance in France, and a safe and level headed operator at the IMF, Lagarde would bring experience and good skills to the job of Commission President. She is also probably better known across Europe than any of the other candidates in the race. However her party in France is imploding (unable to challenge Macron), and that could count against her within the EPP. Having kept herself out of the messiness of everyday party politics since 2011, how she would cope with the more explicitly ideological issues a Commission President would have to deal with is unknown.
Ursula von der Leyen (Wikipedia) is Minister of Defence in Germany, thought to be safe but also uninspiring, but Altmaier or Weber are more likely. Michel Barnier (Wikipedia) is unlikely. With the Brexit timetable starting to slip, he’ll be unable to extricate himself from that job in time. Jyrki Katainen (Wikipedia) has ruled himself out (in favour of Stubb?), but if the EPP came calling could reconsider. Fredrik Reinfeldt (Wikipedia) is still only 53 and Prime Minister of Sweden until 2014 – but now out of everyday politics. Enda Kenny (Wikipedia) is a former Irish Prime Minister, respected in Brussels and in EPP circles. Would add extra spice to the Brexit negotiations were he to be Commission President! Antonio Tajani (Wikipedia) is one of the great mysteries of the EU. Ineffective as a Commissioner, non-descript as President of the European Parliament, but still he continues to rise. Surely Commission President would be a step too far?
What will happen?
Stubb is too liberal, Weber too conservative (and too friendly to Fidesz), so the job is for Altmaier – if in the end he and the CDU want it.
Party of European Socialists (PES)
Helle Thorning Schmidt (Wikipedia)
Socialdemokratiet, Denmark | Former Prime Minister | Age: 51
Chief Executive of the NGO Save The Children since her time as Prime Minister ended in 2015 in Denmark, Thorning has recently been seen in Brussels more often. As a former MEP she is also known well in the city. That she is a consummate professional is in her favour, while her ideoloigcal flexibility over the years, and time out of high level politics, speak against her. Her party is not in power, but has stabilised in her absence.
Frans Timmermans (Wikipedia)
PvdA, Netherlands | Vice President of the European Commission | Age: 57
Juncker’s right hand man as First Vice President of the European Commission, and a former Foreign Minister of The Netherlands. Canny and politically astute, if sometimes a bit too clever and ego driven for his own good. He’d light up the race for the Commission Presidency if the PES were to go for him, but with the PvdA falling apart his base of support is weak. He has led the Commission’s work investigating breaches of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, and has shown more determination on this than most in the Commission.
Federica Mogherini (Wikipedia)
Partito Democratico, Italy | High Rep for EU Foreign Policy | Age: 45
One of those politicians who seems to have risen and risen without a trace, and hence even capable of making Cathy Ashton’s time as EU High Rep look like a success. So determined to keep everyone content, and an absolute pro in the corridors of EU political power, she is nevertheless in with a chance, despite her non-record as High Rep. The nightmare her party faced in the recent Italian elections counts against her.
Pierre Moscovici (Wikipedia)
PS, France | European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs | Age: 60
A political pro of many years standing, Moscovici has been a steady hand in one of the Commission’s major portfolios, and is a former Minister of Finance and also formerly a MEP. His reasonably personable approach, and adeptness dealing with the media, have won him some allies, but much like Mogherini and Timmermans, his home party is in a state of disarray currently.
Martin Schulz (Wikipedia) is without a job after his effort to become German Chancellor failed, but a further tilt at the Commission top job is foolish. Matteo Renzi (Wikipedia) was until recently the bright young thing on the left, before being overtaken by M5S – could a move to Brussels make sense for him? Christian Kern (Wikipedia) is only recently out of a job as Austrian Chancellor, and made a solid impression in the short time he occupied the post. Stefan Löfven (Wikipedia) is likely to be looking for a job after the forthcoming Swedish election.
What will happen?
If the socialists want someone with some profile, then Thorning is probably their best bet. If they want a clever Brussels player who can also communicate, then Timmermans. But how this will all play out in a party family whose fortunes are taking a nose dive is hard to read – could they even end up as only the third largest group in the EP after the elections?
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
Margrethe Vestager (Wikipedia)
Radikale Venstre, Denmark | European Commissioner for Competition and former Deputy Prime Minister | Age: 50
One of the few stars of the Juncker Commission, Vestager has been both a determined and principled Commissioner, and someone who also comes across as a decent and honest person and a good (digital) communicator. ALDE’s election campaign with her as the top candidate would be very interesting indeed. But is any EU political party – even ALDE – ready for a principled and strong willed northern European woman?
Guy Verhofstadt (Wikipedia)
Open-VLD, Belgium | Leader of the ALDE-Group in the EP and former Prime Minister | Age: 65
One of the great survivors of EU politics, and a perennial wannabe Commission President. Verhofstadt will defend the EU, warts and all, and do it with his unique combination of humour, determination and some political nous, annoying some people along the way. His efforts to defend the EU through the Brexit process have won him some new allies, but his character and the sort of “oh, again?” reaction when people mention his name count against him.
Taavi Rõivas (Wikipedia)
Eesti Reformierakond, Estonia | Chair of ALDE’s election progamme process and Former Prime Minister | Age: 38
Not yet 40 and already a former Prime Minister, Rõivas would be a face of the newer liberals in the EU. ALDE parties have been steadily gaining ground in smaller Member States of the EU, with the Reform Party in Estonia a case in point. Professional and safe, but rather unknown, he would be a good option if other candidates are too controversial.
Andrus Ansip (Wikipedia) is another former Estonian Prime Minister and is Vice President of the European Commission, a position where he has been solid but low profile. Věra Jourová (Wikipedia) is European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality and comes from ANO 2011, the party of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, one of ALDE’s most successful but most controversial member parties. Cecilia Malmström (Wikipedia) has been a European Commissioner for two terms, currently responsible for Trade. Competent and able, she would be an excellent candidate, but probably lacks adequate backing.
What will happen?
One man casts a massive shadow over this whole process: French President Emmanuel Macron. At the time of the writing, how La République en marche! and ALDE will work together (or not) is not known. Were they to do so, a candidate like Vestager would be just right. If not then a more traditional or less risky candidate like Rõivas would probably be more likely.
(note the Greens select two top candidates – there is one place for a woman, and one ‘open’ place)
Ska Keller (Wikipedia)
Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen, Germany | Co-chair of the Greens-EFA Group in the EP | Age: 36
Propelled to the top of European Green politics having been one of the European Greens’ two top candidates in 2014, Keller has cemented her position within the European Parliament and green movement since then. A determined voice on refugee issues, she manages to build bridges between the different points of view within the European Greens.
Bas Eickhout (Wikipedia)
GroenLinks, Netherlands | Member of the European Parliament | Age: 41
One of the best known Green MEPs, Eickhout has an easy confidence and communication ability. His party – GroenLinks – has risen and risen in recent years, usurping the Labour Party as the main party of the left in Dutch politics. He lacks experience at the highest level, but would have the skill and ability to make up for that.
Isabella Lövin (Wikipedia)
Miljöpartiet de gröna, Sweden | Deputy Prime Minister and Former MEP | Age: 55
The leading green in Löfven’s red-green government, Lövin may nevertheless find herself without a job after the 9th September general election in Sweden. Having led he party to relative electoral success and into government as junior coalition partner, poll ratings have since suffered. A former MEP and before that a journalist she has the skills and experience to be an excellent candidate.
Heidi Hautala (Wikipedia) is a long standing MEP from the Finnish Greens who have been going from strength to strength in the polls but face a General Election in Finland in early 2019 that complicates matters. José Bové (Wikipedia) was the co-candidate with Keller in 2014, but with the French Greens in disarray he is an outsider this time. Jesse Klaver (Wikipedia), the leader of GroenLinks, was talked of as a person to front the European Greens’ campaign, but there is no indication he would want to actually do that.
What will happen?
Ska Keller is odds on for one of the two positions, with Lövin probably the favourite for the other position – if the Swedish political situation permits her to do it.
Gregor Gysi (Wikipedia)
Die Linke, Germany | President of the Party of the European Left | Age: 70
One of the most well known politicians on the left, Gysi has stepped back from the day to day running of Die Linke in recent years to focus on the European Left. A compelling character and canny operator, being the face of the European Left’s election campaign in 2019 would be one of Gysi’s final acts before retirement.
Gabi Zimmer (Wikipedia)
Die Linke, Germany | Chair of the GUE/NGL Group in the European Parliament | Age: 63
Responsible for the day to day running of the GUE/NGL Group in the European Parliament, Zimmer is a solid and professional political operator. Available if for some reason Gysi did not put himself forward.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Wikipedia)
La France Insoumise | Party Leader, former MEP | Age: 67
The leftwing firebrand who succeeded in partially unifying his part of the political spectrum prior to the 2017 Presidential Election in France, Mélenchon is like a rebel without a target at the moment, as all parties in France struggle to land meaningful blows on the youthful President. He would light up the European Election campaign, but has sounded more EU-sceptic in recent years – that might be too much for the European Left to take.
Alexis Tsipras (Wikipedia) was the lead candidate in 2014 but his heart was not in it. Still Prime Minister of Greece that remains his focus, so were he a candidate it would be to front a campaign essentially run by others. Pablo Iglesias (Wikipedia), as leader of Podemos, likewise has his eye on Spanish and not on EU politics, but he is one of the compelling figures of the European Left.
What will happen?
It looks to me like Gysi is the front runner.
I assume that the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (AECR), and parties more to the eurosceptic right than them – European Alliance for Freedom, Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe and Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom – will not put forward candidates for Commission President.
A number of politicians are often mentioned for Brussels top jobs would be more suited as Donald Tusk’s successor as President of the European Council than as Commission President, and hence are not included here. These include Mark Rutte (Wikipedia), Klaus Iohannis (Wikipedia) and Dalia Grybauskaitė (Wikipedia).
Photo Credits – Creative Commons Licensed
Alexander Stubb by TEDx Otaniemi | Manfred Weber by European Parliament | Peter Altmaier by OECD | Christine Lagarde by World Bank Photo Collection | Helle Thorning Schmidt by Arbeiderpartiet | Frans Timmermans by United Nations – Geneva | Federica Mogherini by European External Action Service | Pierre Moscovici by Francois Hollande Team | Margrethe Vestager by European Parliament | Guy Verhofstadt by ALDE | Taavi Roivas by NATO | Ska Keller by Heinrich Böll Stiftung | Bas Eickhout by EU in Peru | Isabella Lövin by Miljöpartiet | Gregor Gysi by Die Linke | Gabi Zimmer by GUE/NGL | Jean Luc Melenchon by René Noyon
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