EU leaders gather to decide captains of European Council and foreign affairs

As Saturday’s ‘special’ European Council Leaders’ Summit draws closer, the speculative frenzy over which high-flying politician will end up in which post continues to grow.  European leaders have the difficult task of agreeing on the EU’s top positions of European Council President (Herman Van Rompuy’s replacement) and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Catherine Ashton’s replacement).  And filling these posts will require consideration of a number of factors, including reconciling political  geographic and gender politics, all the while accounting for fundamental differences between Member States as regards foreign and economic policymaking. It’s diplomatic horse-trading at its finest – what we, here in the EU-bubble, love to chew the fat over; that game of ‘if X, then Y’ can keep us busy for hours – and has!

Making waves: Saturday & its ‘trickle down’ effect

So the leaders “just” have to agree on two names on Saturday – I know what you’re thinking, “sounds straightforward” right? Well, not so fast.  Deciding the next European Council President and EU Foreign Affairs Chief is a pretty big deal (even if we’re still not sure who answers the phone when Kissinger wants to call Europe). And it’s not expected to be all smooth sailing.

A *few* challenges exist: That whole not-having-enough women nominees for Commission posts matters. As does the ongoing fundamental disagreement over how the EU deals with conflict (see: Ukraine) and economic reform (pro or anti-austerity?).  Balancing these issues, along with appeasing political parties – particularly the Social Democrats so they feel appropriately represented – will all come into play. Whatever is decided on Saturday will also have ‘trickle down’ implications for Juncker’s subsequent allocation of portfolios. It may not be bumpy seas, but let’s say we expect Saturday’s agreement to create some political waves.

Once the high political posts are decided on the 30th, then Juncker needs to go away and assign portfolios for the rest of his College. He too, will have to ruminate on the politics of geography, gender, economic policy viewpoint, and ‘Eurozone or non’. Decisions over which nominee will become the head honcho for everything from trade to competition to multilingualism and more will be politically charged. These allocations are sure to be discussed in the margins of Saturday’s Summit, though not formally decided as that’s Juncker’s prerogative. On top of it all, Juncker must keep in mind that his College can serve only after being given the nod of approval by both the European Parliament and the Member States – and each of those bodies will have their own priorities for the compilation and structure of the next executive body of the EU.

 Who’s up for what? 

  • Battling out the course of direction for European foreign policy are the current Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response (Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva), as well as two current Foreign Ministers (Italy’s Federica Mogherini and Poland’s  Radosław Sikorski). Mogherini is the only Social-Democrat candidate put forward and seems to be the front runner, although Central European countries have publicly opposed her candidature as she appears soft on Russia. They have thrown their support behind Sikorski who is seen as more bull-ish on Russia and quite critical of the US. Georgieva, on the other hand, is generally seen as a good compromise candidate given her experience and more moderate positioning than the other two.
  • There are various names in the mix for the position of Council President as well. Donald Tusk seems to be the front runner for the centre-right EPP and enjoys the support of Merkel and Cameron, though recent reports indicate he may prefer an economic portfolio. Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt may prove to be the best candidate given her political affiliation and gender status. That said, neither Denmark nor Poland are Eurozone Member States, which has been a concern raised by France and means they might face lingering opposition. If that’s the case, then Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis could emerge as a strong compromise for geographic balance and Eurozone status. Other contenders from the EPP include Ireland’s Enda Kenny and Finland’s Jyrki Katainen.

The gender issue: A red herring?

On multiple occasions President Juncker has committed to having a fair representation of women in his College and both EP president Martin Schulz, and ALDE group president, Guy Verhofstadt, have said that the European Parliament would accept nothing less. However, Member States have only nominated four women. As a potential means of hedging his bets, Juncker has recently stated that if he doesn’t receive more female candidates he would redress the situation by looking to assign ‘important portfolios’ to those female candidates who have been nominated. Questions remain however, as to whether this would appease the European Parliamentarians who appear ready to take Juncker to task over the issue.


A possible structural shake-up?

Juncker could seize his moment as President to restructure the Commission to better fit his College – which currently includes a few former prime ministers amongst other highly political operators. One of the ideas is to create two vice-president posts for Commissioners that have a coordination and filtering function similar to the role played by the Secretariat General. These posts could including Vice-president in charge of budget, economic and employment reform in Member States and a Vice-president in charge of coordinating growth and investment programmes.


Further structural reforms of the Commission, such as creating clusters was discussed and discarded in the formation stages of the Barroso II Commission. A cluster structure could be politically difficult to accept as it could mean that some Member States would have a Commissioner without a portfolio, and would be seen to be accepting a more “junior” position. Furthermore, the Lisbon treaty prescribes parity in the College of Commissioners – a principle which would be hard to combine with hierarchical clustering.

Land ahoy!

As long as the ship doesn’t veer off course, EU leaders will decide on the positions of High Representative and Council President tomorrow and the remaining ambiguous Member States will announce their nominees for the Commission posts. Once that happens, Juncker will have to get to work on formulating his College so that it can be approved by Parliament. The EU leaders are already running behind as their July Summit ended without answers as to who will fill these top political posts. If the process is delayed any further, the Juncker Commission will struggle to be in port on 1 November.


By Lindsay Hammes & The FleishmanHillard IRU (Institutional Research Unit) Team