The European Union’s 400 million voters may be about to determine the chief executive of the world’s largest economic bloc for the first time.
For that to happen, national leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will have to renounce their right to pick the head of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. The commission proposes EU laws, acts as the bloc’s antitrust authority, administers its 140 billion-euro ($192 billion) budget, negotiates trade accords and runs a European foreign service.
This question of where EU power lies will hover over May 22-25 elections to the European Parliament that will give the biggest Europe-wide party a claim to the top job at the commission. Under new treaty rules, heads of government must take “into account” the election result when nominating someone to succeed Jose Barroso of Portugal as commission president when his second five-year term ends in October.
“Government leaders seem to think that they still have the right to choose who runs Europe,” Marco Incerti, an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said by phone on May 19. “They haven’t yet fully subscribed to the new system. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if a compromise candidate emerges, in which case there would be noise from the Parliament.”
This experiment in parliamentary democracy by a 28-nation club has the potential to turn into a turf battle, particularly if neither Europe’s Christian Democrats nor Socialists emerge as clear winners.
The Christian Democrats, which include Merkel’s party, have fielded former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker as their candidate for commission chief. The Socialists, to whom Hollande’s party belongs, have put forward the Parliament’s current president, Martin Schulz of Germany.
Beneath the media headlines about a projected rise in anti-EU parties in the Parliament is a quieter story about the assembly’s growing clout over European policies on everything from bank rescues and electricity flows to clean fuels and passenger rights.
The Parliament, which already has powers on par with those of EU governments to veto or amend most European laws, would gain more influence over the commission by putting forward its next president.
The Parliament has two points of leverage in the debate about Barroso’s successor. First, it has the right to veto any nominee proposed by national leaders. The candidate must gain the backing of a majority in the assembly, whose seats will number 751, down from a current total of 766.
Second, Juncker, Schulz and candidates from three other European parties -- the pro-business Liberals, the Greens and the post-communist left -- have spent the past several months campaigning for the top commission job, including in televised debates. Their backers in the Parliament say refusing to pick one of these five official candidates would be a mockery of democracy.
“Heads of state and government are free to do what they want behind closed doors, but this is finished that the president of the European Commission is the result of a back-room deal,” Schulz said in a May 15 debate with the four other candidates in Brussels. “One of the candidates here will be the next president of the European Commission.”
If so, the post would likely go to Juncker, who served as Luxembourg’s prime minister for 18 years until December 2013, or to Schulz, who has been an EU Parliament member for the past 20 years.
Polls have put the Christian Democrats and Socialists neck and neck for weeks, with each projected to win almost 30 percent of the seats. In the outgoing assembly, the Christian Democrats -- also known as the European People’s Party -- are the biggest group with 36 percent and the Socialists the No. 2 with 26 percent.
Juncker, the EU’s longest-serving leader when he stepped down, also gained recognition in his dual role as head of the group of euro-area finance ministers during the debt crisis that has dominated the commission’s agenda for the past five years. Schulz, an outspoken Parliament president, came to media prominence in 2003 when then Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi caused a political uproar by likening the German to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Juncker said in a May 11 interview with Germany’s Bild Zeitung that Merkel had given a “firm commitment” to support him as the next commission chief should the European People’s Party win the legislative elections.
Asked at a press conference today in Brussels whether he was certain he would get the job if the EPP remains the Parliament’s largest group, Juncker said: “I’m sure.”
Juncker said he would seek to negotiate with all the Parliament’s political groups except “the extreme right” on his policy program to ensure sufficient support in the assembly for his nomination.
“The EPP will not have the absolute majority,” he said. “We have to have votes coming from other parties.”
EU government heads plan to meet on May 27 in Brussels to discuss the election result while holding off on putting forward a nominee. The Parliament intends to vote on the next commission president in July, allowing for a month of political maneuvering in Brussels and national capitals over the job.
While legally the nominee proposed by leaders must have the support of only a weighted majority of them, they tend to seek unanimity for such high-profile posts. As a result, a strong objection to any of the current candidates by a single leader, especially one from a big EU country, could be a serious obstacle.
Furthermore, the lack of a clear party winner in the Parliament elections would give the leaders a stronger case for proposing a compromise candidate, possibly from among their own ranks. Barroso was a sitting prime minister when fellow leaders nominated him in 2004.
Among the names of possible last-minute nominees that have been bandied about in Brussels circles are Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, who plans to step down in June to seek a commission post or another international position, and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
Another element that may strengthen leaders’ hands is the portfolio of top EU jobs that need to be filled in the coming months. Governments must choose someone to replace Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy as EU president -- a post that involves chairing the bloc’s summits -- and a person to succeed Catherine Ashton of the U.K. as Europe’s foreign-policy chief.
Opposition in the Parliament to any compromise candidate for commission president could be diluted by handing other jobs to representatives of the main parties, with national allegiances helping to swing the assembly behind the leaders’ choice.
“It’s always a package deal,” said Incerti of CEPS. “And neither Juncker nor Schulz has total support within their own European parties. Some say Schulz is actually jockeying for the prize of Ashton’s post given his lack of executive experience.”
Van Rompuy, helping to coordinate the whole process, has said leaders aren’t committed to choosing one of the five official candidates as Barroso’s successor.