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The making of European leaders: who selects the president(s)?

Fellow euroblogger Jon Worth has spent some time gathering thoughts and evidence around the coming European Union leadership following the 2014 European Parliament elections, a start of discussions applauded by other bloggers.

Jon has listed a number of candidates for the next European Commission President (of the centre-right, the centre left, or the rest), for the next European Council President and for the next EU foreign minister (“High Representative”).

But while Jon has put some thoughts into potential candidates for next time, it’s worth looking back to the dynamics of 2009 when the last EU leadership was chosen to figure out the potential dynamics we could expect, as speculations such as this one about who could be winner of the race were largely unsuccessful back at the time (see EurActiv link list for more reading).

What do we know about last time?

Interestingly, there’s very little academic writing about the process in 2009. In fact, the only article focussed on “The appointments of Herman van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton” (JCMS, Volume 48) I could find was actually written by a journalist, Tony Barber of the Financial Times, not by a scholar. Some of what is in there can be found in related press reports, but some issues are worth (re-)reporting.

Barber’s account differs a little from what Jean Quatremer reports, i.e. that Nicolas Sarkozy had “killed” Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid for the European Council presidency on the evening of the 29 October 2009 European Council. Barber reports that Juncker only put forward his candidacy to definitely “kill” Blair, while Merkel and Sarkozy had contacted van Rompuy already the evening before and got his interest. Interestingly, thearticle mentions a paper from Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands arguing that the European Council President should be a committed European, which effectively meant: not Tony Blair, a fact I don’t remember from back then.

What’s missing from any of the academic or journalist accounts I could find is how van Rompuy actually become part of the game, that is how, if true, Merkel and Sarkozy had thought he could become European Council President. If somebody has any sources for that, I’d be happy to read. If not, why did nobody look into that?

What is noticeable compared to national politics is that the account of party politics is a little in the background, although Barber clearly reports that it was important for the European People’s Party (EPP) to secure the the European Council presidency. After they had secured this post, this left the EU foreign minister to the Party of European Socialists (PES), who then proposed (according to Barber) the following list:

  • Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany)
  • Miguel Ángel Moratinos (Spain)
  • Elisabeth Guigou (France)
  • Alfred Gusenbauer (Austria)
  • Adrian Severin (Romania)
  • David Miliband (UK)

With Miliband declining after the others were ruled out, two more names were put forward by Gordon Brown, Geoff Hoon and John Hutton, but these failed to get support. Finally, with a push from the socialists for a female candidate for one of the top EU jobs, Catherine Ashton (EU Trade Commissioner until then) made it onto the ticket (source: Tony Barber). It’s worth pointing out that none of the other political parties seemed to have played a crucial role in 2009.

Why is all that relevant?

Jon Worth‘ and others’ speculations about who could end up on top of the list cannot be separated from the process and from timing.

On the one hand, 2009 showed that the political environment at the time of the nomination for the EU’s top jobs is crucial for who can become what. Majorities in the European Parliament and the composition of the European Council (i.e national governments and presidents) count as much as the egos of some of the individuals involved and the need to balance selections so that everyone (except the citizens) can feel satisfied.

The selection procedure last time was a political balance act in which, after the nomination of Barroso as the quasi-uncontested Commission President candidate, van Rompuy appeared to be a equilibrium between political orientation (centre-right, pro-EU), member state size (no large member state), and profile (no big egos or controversial figure), while Ashton was the political balance rounding up the field after all the other choices – including giving the European Parliament leadership to a Pole and after some countries had made clear their preferences for European Commission portfolios – had been made.

The big question for 2014 will be: Who selects or nominates the next European leaders, who will be queen- or king-makers?

How much will depend on the campaign for and the outcome of the European Parliament elections? Different to last time, there may be several figures running for European Commission President, hoping for the right majorities in the European Parliament.

In how far will timing play a role? Different to last time, the European Parliament elections will be held earlier (22-25 May 2014), so that the European Commission President (and the European Parliament President) could be nominated before the summer break in 2014, while all the haggling over all the other posts (Commissioners, EU foreign minister, European Council President) could go on all summer and up into the autumn – or will the dynamics change and everything will be clear by July?

How will national elections taking place before the nomination of the European Commission President and before the nomination of the other leaders change the composition of the European Council and “free” certain persons who could then become candidates for European offices? There will be at least parliament elections in Germany (currently EPP-led, September 2013), Austria (PES-led, September 2013), Hungary (EPP-led, April 2014), Czech Republic (AECR-led, possibly in May 2014), Belgium (PES-led, likely parallel to EP elections), Sweden (EPP-led, September 2014) or presidential elections in Lithuania (independent but conservative-supported, May 2014).


I’m not sure the process of 2009 gives a clear picture of how the process in 2014 will look like. It only gives an indication that speculations about who has a chance may be a little early today. It could hardly get more unpredictable than last time regarding who will or will not win what post, so we may at least come to a point where speculations a week ahead of the nominations will be more telling than they were last time.

The making of European leaders will however remain a game in which many might (want to) have their say, and whether the left or the right, the European or the national interests, the small or the large countries, the outspoken or the quiet leaders will dominate is hard to forecast.

It would just be nice if someone would inform the public about the who and why. But that could be too high a hope.


Disclaimer: I work for the Transparency International EU Office, including on issues relating to the (financing) rules for European Political Parties ahead of the 2014 European Parliament elections. These thoughts are published in my private capacity, following earlier blog posts such as this one.

This article has been corrected and slightly adapted on 21 May 2013.

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