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January 2, 2014 2:47 pm

Europe’s leaders divided on how to pick next EC president

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The leading contenders to head the EU’s executive arm after José Manuel Barroso’s term finishes this year.

Over the past decade, English has gradually replaced French as the EU’s lingua franca. But in recent weeks the word most often on EU officials’ lips has been German: Spitzenkandidat.

The word – literally “top candidate”, or party-list leader – first entered the European lexicon in 2013 after the centre-left Party of European Socialists committed itself to naming a Spitzenkandidat for May’s EU parliamentary election who would become the party’s choice for the EU’s most high-profile job: European Commission president.

The idea is to use the European parliamentary elections to select the next president of the European Commission when José Manuel Barroso’s term finishes in October and thereby give more democratic legitimacy to the bloc’s executive arm.

New treaty provisions mean EU leaders have to “take into account” the election results when selecting the commission president. But the leaders are divided over whether this means giving the job to a leading parliamentary candidate, adding huge uncertainty to the process of choosing who will run the bloc’s crucial executive arm.

The PES, which includes French president François Hollande, has argued that picking Spitzenkandidaten would democratise the process of selecting the commission president and even mooted a US-style primary contest, eventually scrapping the idea for a vote at a party conference.

But the concept only gained momentum in mid-December after the PES’s centre-right rival, the European People’s Party, decided to do the same despite the objections of some of its most high-profile leaders, including Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council.

Party insiders said Ms Merkel and Mr Van Rompuy feared the process could lead to one of the EU’s perennial institutional conflicts, with heads of government running headlong into the European parliament, which must confirm the nominee and is the strongest advocate of the Spitzenkandidat system.

But Kostas Sasmatzoglou, an EPP spokesman, insisted the delay was due to the EPP being the party of power – in addition to Ms Merkel and Mr Van Rompuy, it claims 11 EU prime ministers plus Mr Barroso – rather than internecine warfare.

“We still have work to do,” said Mr Sasmatzoglou, dismissing concerns the EPP would be the last to pick its candidate at a March party conference in Dublin. “Three months is more than enough time.”

You can’t be a kingmaker when you’re only 40 or 50 people. You may be ideologically pure, but you need to come back as a big group

- Aide to Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister

Advocates of the system hope it will generate more interest in the EU elections, which have had low turnouts and are threatening to be a field day for anti-EU populist parties. The four largest party groups – as well as the EPP and PES, the centrist Liberals and European Greens are also picking Spitzenkandidaten – have signed up for at least one US-style presidential debate between the contenders in the weeks before the vote.

But thus far, the contests have lacked political drama. Martin Schulz, the German Social Democrat who is president of the EU parliament, became the PES candidate in November when he ran unopposed. The Greens are holding an online primary but all four candidates are relatively unknown.

The Liberals are the only party with a full-blown race between internationally prominent candidates. Finland’s Olli Rehn, the commission’s economic chief, last month launched an unexpectedly strong campaign against Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and the party’s leader in the European parliament.

A meeting of Liberal leaders in December was unable to reach a consensus and tasked Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, a Verhofstadt backer and the Liberals’ most prominent politician, and Christian Lindner, a Rehn supporter and head of the German Free Democrats, with trying to reach an accord.

Mr Rehn, who also has the backing of Nick Clegg, the UK’s Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, has been pushing for a vote when the party meets on February 1, a sign he believes he has sewn up enough of the 400-odd party delegates to secure the nomination.

“In a democracy, it is completely natural to decide by vote and then move on by standing united,” Mr Rehn said in an interview. “But I’m ready to discuss an ecumenical solution.”

Mr Verhofstadt’s backers acknowledge their candidate has been hurt by perceptions he is the EU’s most prominent federalist at a time when anti-EU sentiment is rife. But Mr Rehn has a reputation as a lacklustre campaigner, which they fear could hurt the party in May’s elections, where both the British Lib Dems and German FDP are expected to suffer losses.

“You can’t be a kingmaker when you’re only 40 or 50 people,” said a Verhofstadt aide. “You may be ideologically pure, but you need to come back as a big group.”

With the PES and EPP neck and neck in polling, the contest most of Brussels is watching is the closed-door manoeuvring within the EPP, where no fewer than four current and former prime ministers are in the mix.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent election loss after 19 years as Luxembourg prime minister has put him in pole position, according to party insiders. But others said the Dublin convention could make the candidacy Enda Kenny’s if the Irish prime minister wants it – which he says he doesn’t.

One senior EU and EPP leader said: “It’s a tough race, but the decision to pick the Dublin congress to name our candidate makes me think that they want to crown Kenny on his home turf.”


Letter in response to this article:

Election deserves more attention / From Prof Thomas Christiansen and others

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