Whoever replaces Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission faces a bulging inbox – from managing Britain’s potentially disorderly exit from the bloc to grappling with U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies. Here, Bloomberg columnists Leonid Bershidsky, Lionel Laurent and Ferdinando Giugliano assess the likely candidates for the most powerful job in the EU.
Lionel Laurent: The apparent front-runner may be anything but that. Mention Manfred Weber’s name in Brussels in connection with the post of European Commission president and eyes will roll. That reaction looks to be entirely justified. The German leader of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament would be the continuity choice at a time when the EU really needs a new approach. Outside the Brussels bubble, he is a virtual unknown, never having served in an elected government. It’s hard to see how he could assemble a commission that is closer to voters’ hearts.
As an EPP insider, though, he is the easy choice for Angela Merkel and other national leaders aligned with the grouping. But he is also a convenient target for those like French President Emmanuel Macron who oppose the EPP and the whole spitzenkandidat system, where the chosen candidate of the political party that gets the most seats in the European Parliament is the first to be considered for the position.
Leonid Bershidsky: If the job is both diplomatic and managerial, then two of the top candidates have what it takes to handle that complexity: the EU’s top Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the Commission’s First Vice President, Frans Timmermans.
Barnier’s forte is firmness in the face of adversity. As France’s foreign minister in 2004 and 2005, he opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and wasn’t afraid to face off against the City of London in a fight to overhaul the banking system after the financial crisis. And, most recently, he led the Brexit negotiations for the EU-27.
He isn’t without his shortcomings. He hasn’t formally campaigned for the job, choosing instead to see the Brexit process through. He isn’t much of a campaigner or debater. The Brexit deal he reached was within the guidelines set for him by the national leaders – but it failed because it wasn’t really a compromise by Brussels. The EU might need someone with a little more flexibility and cunning.
Unlike Barnier, Timmermans is strong campaigner and debater. In last month’s European Parliament election, he led his Dutch Labour Party to victory after a painful flop in the 2017 general election. At ease and nearly accent-free in all the major European languages (and fluent in Russian, too), there is probably no other person who knows the diplomatic part of the job better than he does. He was a civil servant in the foreign ministry before serving as an aide to a commissioner and then a high-ranking member of the Commission. With his negotiating wile and his deep knowledge of the EU’s limited toolbox in dealing with member states, Timmermans made a surprising, if incomplete, success out of what looked like a suicide mission – making illiberal eastern European governments toe the EU line on the rule of law.
Another advantage he may benefit from is his commitment to environmental issues. A proponent of a pan-European carbon-dioxide tax, he is the only realistic candidate who could respond to the Green wave in the recent European election. This might be helpful in promoting him as a compromise figure, even though he doesn’t come from the EPP, the European Parliament’s biggest faction.
The Dutchman, however, is perhaps too resolutely leftist to work with a diverse group of national leaders and a large conservative and far-right contingent in the parliament. And his lackluster performance on one of the tasks he was handed in the outgoing Commission – the “Better Regulation” portfolio – shows he might not be the best at keeping the Brussels bureaucracy in check.
Ferdinando Giugliano: If one were looking to pick the next president on the basis of what they did for the bloc in the recent past, you have to look at Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner. The Dane championed several high-profile cases against tech giants and defended the EU’s antitrust rules.
Vestager has two advantages over Barnier. She would come across as a fresher voice than the seasoned French politician. At a time when EU voters demand change, this is not to be underestimated. Vestager is 17 years younger than Barnier and would be the first female Commission president.
Her campaign to ensure that tech companies pay their fair shares of taxes and are subject to adequate antitrust scrutiny may have not always hit the mark, but was guided by the right principles and has struck a chord with the electorate. If there is a politician who can reconnect the Brussels bubble to voters, it is her.
She has also shown the ability to stand up to governments – but also to compromise. Between 2015 and 2017, she faced down demands from the Italian government to overlook the post-crisis rules for handling failing banks. In the end, the EU and Italy struck a deal to liquidate two small lenders which, though highly questionable, demonstrated Vestager’s pragmatism. This year, she blocked the merger of Alstom SA and Siemens AG’s rail businesses, which Germany and France were heavily lobbying for. At a time when the Commission is losing power against national governments, she would be a powerful champion of EU institutions.
Lionel Laurent: Despite the focus on big names like Barnier and Vestager, or party picks like Timmermans and Weber, there’s a possibility that the complex push-and-pull between EU leaders over top jobs ends up with an outsider candidate.
One name that surfaced earlier this year was Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank and a former European commissioner. As a female candidate and a representative of Europe’s east, she would appear fresh and still have experience and credibility in a top job. As an EPP member, her candidacy could still claim to represent the dominant political bloc in parliament. Her name will likely come to the fore if the other potential picks fall by the wayside. And for the European Commission, she could represent a force for change without rocking the boat.
EU leaders will discuss the appointment at a summit later this month. After the horse trading, the new Commission president will take office on Nov. 1.
To contact the authors of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.comFerdinando Giugliano at firstname.lastname@example.orgLionel Laurent at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edward Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.