EU: the race for the succession to Juncker stokes tensions

The president of the european Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (c) and the negotiator-in-chief of Brexit for the Union, Michel Barnier (g) in Strasbourg, on 17 January 2018 (Photo FREDERICK FLORIN. AFP)

The race to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker to head the european Commission has already started behind the scenes. But the 28 member countries of the EU are still far from agreement on the rules of the game.

Among the possible candidates to replace Luxembourg in the fall of 2019, it is the name of the Frenchman Michel Barnier, who is currently chief negotiator for the Brexit on behalf of the Union, returning with more insistence.

His candidacy had already been envisaged in 2014, but the political family of the EPP group (right majority in the european Parliament), it was then preferred to the current president of the Commission.

Mr. Juncker had been nominated as ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of the EPP, according to the German name, which is required for this procedure, that the european parties should designate “candidates list headings” in the european elections. The idea of the process, inaugurated in 2014, is that the presidency of the Commission should go to the candidate of the party arrived in head.

The european Parliament, who is responsible for the election of the Commission president by a vote, at any price that the method is again used. He sees it as the pledge of increased transparency and a strengthening of its political legitimacy as that of the Commission.

– ‘Frustration’ –

But the european treaties have entrusted to the member States the power to appoint, by a qualified majority, the candidate for the presidency of the Commission, even if the texts ask them in a vague way of doing that, “taking into account the elections to the Parliament”.

And a number of leaders of european countries, the French Emmanuel Macron in the head, are opposed to the method of the “Spitzenkandidaten”, as they should remember, at a summit in Brussels on 23 February.

“In 2014, there has been frustration in several capitals on the fact that the procedure which led to the appointment of Juncker had not been transparent enough,” says a source european.

For some critics, this system has led to a politicisation of the Commission, considered to be harmful. Others fear the case of a flare-up of political parties eurosceptics in the european elections, which could lead to the selection of a candidate from their ranks.

In the Face of such reticence, the meps are intended to raise the tone in the plenary session next week in Strasbourg (east of France).

“The european Parliament will reject any candidate for the presidency of the Commission which have not been designated as a +Spitzenkandidat+ upstream of the european Parliament elections”, warned the German Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP in the european Parliament.

And “if the governments of the member States are attempting to go back on this principle”, he added to the address of the president Macron, “they need to explain why, despite their grand rhetoric on the need for democratic change in Europe, they are in reality not willing to give up the opacity and secrecy”.

– ‘Closed doors’ –

The influential head of the German cabinet of Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Selmayr, has also called to renew in 2019 the procedure of 2014.

“A Spitzenkandidat victorious who has campaigned throughout Europe for a majority of the seats will have a stronger legitimacy as the president of the european Commission that a person chosen behind closed doors”, has recently been argued by Mr. Selmayr on the social network Twitter (NYSE:TWTR).

In the meantime the formula is chosen, there are still no candidates officially declared.

Michel Barnier, former commissioner and several times minister in France, has never said that his candidacy to stand for the position again, but his current responsibilities have delivered it into the spotlight.

“He has done a very good job,” said one senior european official, holding that “the manner in which he behaved on the Brexit increased the confidence in the Commission”, to which his is attached. “He is quite aware of the political capital he has earned,” adds another source european.

The name of the commissioner of Competition, the liberal Danish Margrethe Vestager, is also often mentioned among the potential candidates, since his bursts against the american giants of the internet.

“The candidacy for the presidency of the Commission could be of interest to me”, has already said his side the French socialist Pierre Moscovici, currently commissioner for economic Affairs.

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