In 2014 the race to become President of the European Commission – using the new Spitzenkandidat process – was a two-horse race, and months ahead everyone knew who would likely win – Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP). Martin Schulz (PES) put in energy and determination, but the EPP emerged as the largest party after the EP elections and Juncker was approved on 15 July 2014, 7 weeks after the EP election. The other top jobs – Tusk as President of the European Council (EPP), Mogherini as High Rep (PES), and Schulz (PES) followed by Tajani (EPP) as President of the European Parliament largely followed from this.
Juncker, who defeated Michel Barnier in the internal EPP selection process, was not without his critics, but ticked a bunch of boxes – a former Prime Minister and chair of the Eurogroup, a committed pro-EU politician, from a founding Member State of the EU, and – for the EPP at least – enough of a geezer to reassure the more reactionary and elderly male elements of that party.
Also notable was the extend of the EPP-PES stitch up – no such two party deal is possible now.
Juncker was approved by the European Parliament by 422 to 250 votes and, in a sign of what has subsequently come to pass, was approved 26-2 by the European Council with only Orbán and Cameron opposing.
Fast forward to the run up to the 2019 European Parliament elections and a number of things changed.
Rather than Juncker versus Barnier and the candidate with the better qualifications emerging victorious (Barnier had only been a Commissioner and a Foreign Minister a decade previously in France), Weber easily defeated former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb for the EPP’s nomination. Weber had not even been EP President (had Schulz won in 2014 would his nomination gone the same way as Weber’s I wonder…?) but only leader of the EPP group. And while the dour Bavarian with his flip-flopping over Hungary and Orbán acted as a comfort blanket to the reactionaries in the EPP, Weber brought little else to the race. The pre-election debates this year – where Weber was outshone repeatedly by Timmermans (PES) and whoever ALDE (Liberals) and the Greens put up – underlined the impression that this was a candidate not up to the job.
The alternatives each brought downsides. Frans Timmermans – Commissioner responsible for investigations into breaches of the Rule of Law in Poland and Hungary – was rejected by the Visegrad-4 and Italy. ALDE – that had at least committed to the Spitzenkandidat process in 2014 – proposed a slate of 7 candidates, of which Margrethe Vestager was the only really viable Commission President nominee. But ALDE was too busy bending to Emmanuel Macron’s ego, and his opposition to the Spitzenkandidat process, to really give Vestager’s candidature much impetus.
Unlike in 2014, where the votes on European Council President and High Rep only took place at the end of August, this time the European Council front loaded everything – at last week’s summit they approved Charles Michel (ALDE, from Belgium) as Tusk’s successor, proposed Josep Borrell as High Rep, and added the President of the European Central Bank into the mix, with Christine Lagarde proposed (EPP, from France).
Which brings us to Ursula von der Leyen, and the prospects for her approval as President of the European Commission. As Henrik Enderlein rightly points out here, rejecting von der Leyen puts the European Parliament in a bind – there is no real way to replace her with a non-EPP candidate, and Weber has already indicated his withdrawal from the running. Barnier, long rumoured to be waiting in the wings, is now out of the equation due to the presence of Lagarde in the package. Alexander Stubb is of course available, but he was roundly rejected by the EPP in the autumn of last year, and others – like Dalia Grybauskaitė – would suffer the same accusations of being foisted on the EP as von der Leyen. Vestager is out as ALDE already has Charles Michel approved as President of the European Council. And were Timmermans to be back in the game that would mean moving Borrell and giving that post to the EPP… but would the EPP live with that and Lagarde at the ECB? Thin gruel for the largest group in the European Parliament.
The strongest case for von der Leyen then is that all the alternative scenarios are either worse or impossible. Not a resounding commendation of her nomination by any stretch.
Which brings me back to the title of this blog entry – were we just lucky in 2014?
The EPP went for Juncker, the more experienced candidate, and the two party deal for the top jobs – both parties that had backed the Spitzenkandidat process – held. The choice of other posts then followed Juncker’s investiture.
This time the EPP went for the weaker candidate, their determination to back their man was less than it was for Juncker 5 years ago, and the third party in the 2019 alliance – ALDE – had not even committed to the Spitzenkandidat process. Front-loading the nomination process at the June European Council has then additionally bound the hands of the European Parliament that now faces a series of unpalatable choices.
I can only hope that some lessons will be learned from this for 2024 – that the European Council has a proper process to scrutinise candidates (Sánchez has not even met Vestager!), that the President of the European Commission should be the first post to be agreed (ahead of all the others, with weeks or even months in between, as was the case in 2014), and that EU-wide election lists be finally introduced for the 2024 election, meaning political parties have no option other than to put candidates forward across 28 Member States and give them profile (something that the EPP abjectly failed to do for Weber this time).
With hindsight, we were indeed lucky with Mogherini and Tusk.