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What is the EU top jobs puzzle?

Jun 12, 2024 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

The great EU top jobs puzzle is nearly solved

politico –  If you were expecting months of duels, thrilling political action and Brussels powerbrokers whipping out sharp knives to secure the EU’s top jobs in the aftermath of the European election, you may well be disappointed. An unusually early consensus appears to be emerging around the preferred names to sit at the EU’s top table: Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen for a second term as European Commission president, Portugal’s António Costa as European Council president, Malta’s Roberta Metsola as the European Parliament boss and Estonia’s Kaja Kallas as foreign policy chief.

While nothing is set in stone, the outline of a deal is expected by the informal dinner penciled in for the bloc’s leaders on June 17, eight European officials and diplomats told POLITICO. All were granted anonymity to speak candidly about ongoing conversations among Europe’s leaders.  “Touch wood, but this time around things could go relatively quickly,” said one EU official, though they warned a formal deal probably won’t come until leaders meet again on June 27-28.

Part of the reason for the optimism about the timeframe is that French President Emmanuel Macron will have little bandwidth for his regular tricks as the great disruptor.In the days since French liberals and Macron, one of the main brokers in the top jobs discussion, met a crushing defeat at the hands of the far right in the EU election, his negotiating power in Brussels has been sapped. His attention is now on the snap election he called in France, rather than on jobs in Brussels.

Coupled with Russia’s war in Ukraine and the potential return of former U.S. President Donald Trump to the White House after the November U.S., Europe cannot afford internal haggling in sacrifice of stability, the European officials and diplomats said. The quick diplomatic alignment around the Big 4 stands in stark contrast to expectations ahead of the European election, when Brussels was abuzz with rumors that Macron was considering alternatives to von der Leyen as the head of the EU’s executive.

Indeed, the speed of consensus even made some diplomats fear there must be a curveball coming. “The more optimism I hear, the more nervous I become,” one EU diplomat said.The European People’s Party, which remains the largest political force after the European election, wants to guarantee a second five-year mandate for von der Leyen. With Macron focused on his own domestic political turmoil, the Continent’s leaders are nearly certain to push her through.

“The leaders cannot work around her, even the ones who would want to,” another EU official said. “She is their lead candidate, they are the biggest party. She will be the first mover.”

Costa in the Council?

The Socialists, the second-biggest group in the European Parliament and a key part of the current centrist coalition, are eying the leadership of the European Council, representing the 27 EU member countries. Costa is the clear frontrunner in the race to succeed current European Council President Charles Michel — so much so that diplomats are already speculating on who would become his chief of staff should he snag the job.

Earlier this week, Portugal’s current center-right prime minister, Luís Montenegro, said Lisbon would back Costa for the job. “Montenegro would only do that if he knew Costa had a serious shot,” the second EU official said. But it’s not a done deal: Costa’s candidacy could still be complicated by his legal troubles.

Last November, Costa resigned as prime minister after prosecutors identified him as an official suspect in a wide-reaching influence peddling investigation. At the time, Portuguese prosecutors did not reveal what crime he was suspected of having committed. Eight months later, the case remains under seal and the mystery persists.

No charges have been filed against Costa, but prosecutors have not dropped their investigation into the former prime minister. At his request, Costa last month answered questions posed by the public prosecutor and insisted again on his innocence. A wide range of European capitals no longer see the legal case against Costa as an obstacle for his move to Brussels. He has a good working relationship with von der Leyen and is generally well-liked by European leaders.

And according to one French official, Macron likes the French-speaking former Portuguese PM, whom he likes to engage in intellectual discussions. But the Portuguese legal system moves at a glacial pace, and while the investigation into Costa continues, his legal woes could be brought up by Nordics seeking to boost the candidacy of Socialist Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whose name has floated around conversations in the Brussels bubble for months.

Foreign affairs and Parliament chief

The most uncertain post, at this point, is foreign policy chief, four officials said. Estonian Prime Minister Kallas is eying the job, and as a female Eastern European liberal and national leader, would be a near ideal choice for liberals as they pick a successor to Josep Borrell.

In the run-up to the European election, EU countries with little experience of Russian aggression were skeptical about her strong anti-Kremlin stances. Some Western leaders feared Kallas might focus exclusively on Russia and not pay enough attention to other regions, especially the Middle East and Africa. But that opposition has since died down, as Kallas would perfectly fit into the current jobs puzzle, geographically, politically and diplomatically.

The easiest of the four nominations will be giving another two-and-a-half year term to current European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, who is part of the EPP. But it’s the Parliament itself, not EU leaders, who have the final say on this decision.

You scratch my back …

In the coming days, at the informal dinner and summit, European leaders will haggle with von der Leyen to secure concessions in exchange for their backing, offering support in exchange for key portfolios in the next European Commission.“These are heads of state and government. They don’t come to Brussels just to rubber-stamp a deal,” a third EU diplomat said.Even if the European Council reaches a quick agreement on the top job puzzle, there is still the hurdle of the European Parliament, which could vote on a second five-year term for von der Leyen as soon as July 18.

“There is always a surprise in top job discussions,” said a fourth EU diplomat.The German Commission president needs 361 members of the European Parliament to approve a second five-year term. While her current coalition has won 400 seats, party officials caution that at least 10 percent might not vote for the incumbent, potentially denying her a majority.“Don’t worry, we’re not there yet. POLITICO will have plenty to write about,” yet another EU diplomat quipped.

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI


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