The New EU Top Jobs and the Future of Europe
Federico Fabbrini (DCU Brexit Institute)
Les jeux sont fait. After extensive wrangling and negotiations, the heads of state and government of the EU member states found a magical compromise to identify the leaders of the top jobs for the EU’s next institutional cycle. As announced on 2 July 2019 by Donald Tusk, the European Council agreed to nominate Ursula von der Leyen as next President of the European Commission, while electing Charles Michel as next President of the European Council and appointing Christine Lagarde as next President of the European Central Bank (ECB). The package of nominations, which included also the appointment of Josep Borrell as candidate for the role of EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Vice President of the Commission, was completed on 3 July 2019 with the election by the European Parliament of David Maria Sassoli as the assembly’s President.
Numerous journalistic commentaries have already disclosed the backstory of the negotiations on the appointment of the new EU top jobs, which forced the European Council into marathon talks – with failures and unexpected outcomes. In fact, none of the individuals that ultimately secured the appointments had actually been tapped ex ante as likely candidate for the jobs – confirming a well-known maxim in the Catholic world, that ‘he who enters pope into a conclave, leaves it as cardinal’. Yet, the outcome of the appointment battle that played out in Brussels (and Strasbourg) can be more helpfully analyzed from a number of different perspectives – each revealing continuity and change in the functioning of the EU, with important implications for the future of Europe.
The first perspective is that of party politics – namely the balance of power between the EU political families. From this point of view, the outcome of the appointment round reveals modest change compared to the past. A President of the European Commission from the EPP (Juncker) is replaced with another of the same group (Von der Leyen), while a High Representative from the S&D (Mogherini) is also replaced with a socialist (Borrel). In fact, while the election of Charles Michel, a Liberal, deprives the EPP of the Presidency of the European Council, Donald Tusk’s home party (Platforma) embraced a political agenda close to (economic) liberalism. Indeed, the surprise in this respect may be the replacement as ECB President of a technocrat like Mario Draghi with a former EPP-affiliated politician (albeit currently Director of the IMF) like Lagarde – although this confirms a growing trend to have political appointees at the helm of ever more powerful central banks.
The second perspective is that of inter-institutional relations – namely the balance of power between the European Council and the European Parliament, as democratic representatives of EU states and EU citizens respectively. From this point of view, the outcome of the appointment round marked a major departure from the 2014 precedent, when the Spitzenkandidaten process was put into place. Yet, as I had argued back then, the attempt to link the appointment of the European Commission President to the outcome of the European Parliament elections was bound to raise significant challenges in a political system which does not follow a clear-cut bipolar logic. In fact, since no party emerged as clearly victorious in the elections, no lead candidate could plausibly claim by right to be appointed as Commission President. While it remains to be seen if the European Parliament will attempt to mount a resistance against the European Council, there is little doubt that this appointment round returns authority towards national heads of state and government.
Finally, the third perspective is that of inter-state relations – namely the balance of power between the various member states. In my view, it is here that actually the appointment round reflected the greatest departure from prior practice, revealing growing national divisions within the EU. In fact, remarkably, all four of the European Council’s nominees come from Western European states – Von der Leyen being German, Lagarde French, Michel Belgian and Borrel Spanish – a fact compounded by the election of Sassoli, an Italian, as President of the European Parliament. This marked a strong contrast with the prior institutional cycle where a Pole held the high office of European Council President. If the Von der Leyen – Lagarde deal reflected a well-oiled Franco-German entente, the exclusion of the 13 member states that joined the EU since 2004 from all leadership posts confirms a certain irritation, among the Old (and more populous) EU member states, for the ever more widespread phenomenon of rule of law backsliding in the New EU member states.
Hence, the start of the new EU institutional cycle presents both continuity and change with the previous one. Despite the outcome of the European Parliament elections, the equilibrium between the main EU political parties is broadly maintained, with the concession of a Liberal at the head of the European Council. Instead, the appointment process resulted (so far) in the disavowal of the Spitzenkandidaten experiment, with the European Council solidly regaining control of the choice of the President of the European Commission – given growing party fragmentation in the European Parliament itself. Finally, the appointment round entrenched the increasing divisions among Old and New EU member states – a fact that had already emerged in the European Council of 20-21 June, when only a minimalist consensus was reached on the new strategic agenda for 2019-2024 – with all new top jobs being assigned to traditional pro-EU member states of Western Europe.
The isolation of Eastern Europe only matched that of the UK which, being still a member state despite Brexit, formally participated in all European Council negotiations but without having any voice. And party politics and inter-institutional relations suggest that not much will change in the EU approach towards the Brexit negotiations. Hence, while the UK awaits the outcome of a raucous leadership contest within the Tory Party which later this month will result in the appointment of a new Prime Minister, the message from the continent seems clear: traditional party politics is holding the line, and the Franco-German integration engine is solidly in control of the EU and its future – pace Eurosceptic and nationalist governments from Warsaw and Budapest to Rome. But the growing divisions between the EU’s Old and New states may actually create space to construe different tiers of membership – a prospect that may be attractive even if the UK, after all, does not leave.
Federico Fabbrini is Director of the DCU Brexit Institute.