World / Politics

After Jean-Claude Juncker: Three candidates and a dark horse look to lead EU executive

AFP-JIJI

More than 200 million Europeans voted across 28 countries, and a new European Parliament is taking shape, but are we any closer to knowing who will lead the EU executive?

Jean-Claude Juncker steps down as president of the European Commission this year, and EU leaders want a full new team in place by the end of this year to take charge.

They will meet for dinner Tuesday to launch their summer top jobs fair, but so far there is no agreement on a name, nor on a method for finding one.

Senior members of the European Parliament will try to insist someone who took part in the campaign as one of their lead candidates should get the job.

But the European Council of national leaders will be loathe to cede their right, encoded in the European Treaty, to choose a nominee to be ratified by lawmakers.

The right’s quiet champion?

Manfred Weber thinks of himself as the favorite, and the center-right EPP parliamentary group says it is determined that he will get the nod when the leaders meet.

But the 46-year-old Bavarian conservative, an engineer by training, will struggle to convince skeptics like French president Emmanuel Macron.

Unlike Juncker, the former premier of Luxembourg, and other Commission presidents before him, Weber has no executive experience at national or EU level.

Germany’s Angela Merkel has promised to back Weber, and EPP leader Joseph Daul insisted after the vote that the party won and that its candidate must get the job.

But does he have the authority? The EPP is still the biggest group, but lost seats and Weber admitted: “I don’t feel a real powerful victory today.”

The liberals’ tax lady

Alone among the candidates, EU competition commissioner Margarete Vestager had star power before the race — the Danish political soap Borgen was based on her career.

She has also been a star of the outgoing EU administration, a scourge of the U.S. internet giants that prompted President Donald Trump to complain about Europe’s “tax lady.”

But she has the backing of the liberal bloc, which seems to have secured only around 100 seats in the new parliament, weakening any claim to an electoral mandate.

Macron may end up backing her as an alternative to Weber, and EU Council president Donald Tusk has made it clear that a woman should get at least one of Europe’s top jobs.

And she made it clear Sunday that she wants the job.

Asked about the EPP’s stronger election score, Vestager made reference to her record of antitrust actions: “The monopoly of power is broken.”

Juncker’s deputy

The 58-year-old former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans served as Juncker’s deputy and launched EU legal challenges against Poland and Hungary’s governments.

So his executive credentials check out, even if the bearded centrist has also made some enemies on the Council, where there are only five socialist leaders to back him.

Any hope he has would rely on the Greens, liberals and socialists unite behind progressive agenda, trusting Weber to fall in line rather than dealing with the far right.

“I am not putting any claims at all,” he said, perhaps with false modesty after is S&D group lost seats.

“I hope I can bring together a coalition with a program we need for the next five years,” he said.

“On the basis of a program and a coalition than we can start playing the game of thrones, of who gets which job. but that is the right order.”

The impatient understudy

Former foreign minister and now EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, a suave 68-year-old Frenchman, is nobody’s top choice for the Commission — but also nobody’s last.

He’s a veteran Brussels operator, a Gaullist with many close allies in the parliament, even if he did not go to the bother of joining the process to seek the top job.

Like Weber and a good number of EU leaders including Merkel, he is from the center-right EPP group.

And like Macron, he’s at least French, at a point when many in Paris this it’s their turn to lead the Commission or at least something big, like the European Central Bank.

But MEPs seem determined to honor their process, and if Macron blocks Merkel’s man she’s unlikely to approve his.

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