Clock ticks as Europe tries to make up its mind over top jobs

EU leaders will try to seal the structure of the next European leadership triad in a fraught game of horse-trading and negotiating around all the capitals of the EU

European Parliament president Roberta Metsola (left) with Estonian Prime Minister Kaje Kallas
European Parliament president Roberta Metsola (left) with Estonian Prime Minister Kaje Kallas

EU leaders are hoping they can approve the EU’s top jobs package next week with a European Parliament that would back incumbent EC president Ursula von der Leyen in mid-July, for a new European Commission to be installed around 1 November.

If EU leaders fail to agree on a package next week, they are set to meet again for an extra European Council in the summer (and if necessary, another one, and another one). The next opportunity to vote on the future leader of the EU’s executive in the European Parliament is not until September (if there is no consensus in July), which would also delay the start of the next European Commission.

But they failed this week to agree on who shoud fill the top jobs of EC president, Council president and external affairs commissioner. For the horse-trading between the EU members’ ambassadors and delagates is fraught with questions of influence, of geographical balance, and the right political representation – a recipe concocted under intense conditions.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a leading figure in the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists group in the EU Parliament, has emerged as a new force within the European constellation of decision-makers now that the ECR parties have become the third largest political bloc in the EP.

The far-right Fratelli d’Italia (FdL) leader is expecting to take her place on the negotiating table on the names of the EU’s leaders, after complaining about excluded from the top jobs decision-making on the next president of the European Commission, the European Council, as well as the High Representative.

Each of the three main political families — the EPP, the socialists and the liberals — have appointed two leaders as their political negotiators during talks on who should fill the EU’s top jobs.

But Nicola Procaccini, an MEP from Meloni’s party, has already declared that the Italian PM will be seeking more influence on the European table if Ursula von der Leyen is to get a second shot at the European Commission presidency.

Now the third biggest in the 720-seat European Parliament, ahead of the liberals Renew, Meloni’s ECR will not be part of the political coalition supporting von der Leyen: “When we were at the European Council, some arrived with proposals for the top jobs without even reflecting on what the indications of voters were and the change in step on priorities,” Meloni said this week. “I think those trying to do this deal tried to rush because they realize that it could be a fragile agreement.”

EC president Ursula von der Leyen with Council president Charles Michel
EC president Ursula von der Leyen with Council president Charles Michel

Selecting the Commission president

A crucial choice by the EU’s leaders is whether to accept Ursula von der Leyen for a second stint at the presidency of the European Commission.

As ‘spitzenkandidat’ – or lead candidate for the winning party, the European People’s Party – Von der Leyen is the first nominee for the post of running the European executive, which runs both the EU as well as propose new laws to the European Parliament.

The choice of Von der Leyen is a matter to be decided by heads of government in the European Council, a decision not always dictated by party allegiance. Yet now the EPP are expecting not only first pick on the EC presidency; they also think the Council presidency for the next five years, which was last held by a Renew former prime minister, Charles Michel, should be split between them and the socialists.

This deviation on the script of party blocs making neat slices of the EU cake has irked those not in the EPP drift. Last week, Charles Michel himself suggested to EU leaders that it should not be Von der Leyen to run the EC, but Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (EPP). Indeed, it is Michel who, as outgoing Council president, is tasked with bringing together European leaders to reach consensus on the next heads of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament and the EU’s foreign policy arm.

Mitsotakis has already ruled out that he is seeking a job in Brussels. But Michel’s ‘idea’ for an alternative, crowns a saga of infighting with Von der Leyen - the competition between the two set in early when they took office, with the former German defence minister proclaiming that she would lead a ‘geopolitical Commission’ while the former Belgian PM also wanting to be the face of Europe abroad. It set the stage for various double, even treble (counting High Representative Josep Borrell) appearance by the many EU leaders jostling for recognition around the globe.

Finally, it will be the EU’s prime ministers who will be taking the final vote on renewing Von der Leyen’s presidency at the end of June in Brussels.

Prime Minister Robert Abela (right) with Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa, who is being touted for European Council president
Prime Minister Robert Abela (right) with Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa, who is being touted for European Council president

The other jobs

Meloni is expected to muscle her way into this game of European horse-trading, with her bid for an Italian commissioner who will be handling a top economic role, including an executive vice-president or vice-president title for an ECR nomination – possibly Raffaele Fitto, Italy’s minister for EU affairs who was once part of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia before leaving in 2015.

Meloni could also be interested in putting forward the name of Elisabetta Belloni, the current head of Italian intelligence for the role of High Representative of the EU – effectively the bloc’s foreign minister – but this role is set to go to Estonian Prime Minister Kaje Kallas, whose political weight has become more important since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Even if Von der Leyen does not need Meloni joining a unanimous vote for her, it is yet to be seen if European leaders can ignore a strengthened Meloni, who has also shown no qualm in feuding with French president Emanuel Macron since France froze plans to take in 3,500 refugees as part of the EU’s migrant-relocation mechanism in 2022, and instead announced border reinforcements.

Part of the carving-up of EU jobs is always about keeping balance: balance between the major political blocs, and balance between north, south and east and west, and balance between the genders. In this case, the east gets Kallas as HRVP; the north gets Von der Leyen; the south would be represented by Malta’s Roberta Metsola as the EPP’s nomination to the European Parliament, while the job of European Council president is being touted for Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa.

The vote of the MEPs

While the three main political groups’ lead negotiators are in talks to draw up the final list and jobs package for EU commissioners before the Council meets next week, it will still be the European Parliament to finally vote on the next European Commission president in mid-July: undoubtedly MEPs will come with guidelines from their respective national governments, who will toe the line for a stable EU that projects unity, especially in the face of geopolitical uncertainty, which has yet to see an American election get underway later this year.

It’s no done deal for Von der Leyen: she needs 361 votes out of the EP’s 720 to be appointed president, and the members of the EPP, socialists and liberals will not all vote for her, especially if the EPP starts making lunges at more jobs. And if Von der Leyen loses this vote, the Council must come back with an alternative candidate for European Commission president, an institutional crisis Europe does not want.

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This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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