Stratfor's 2019 Annual Forecast highlighted that this will be a crucial year for the future of the European Union as countries appoint the leaders of the bloc's most important institutions. A summit in Romania offered a preview of a debate that will only intensify in the coming weeks.
The race to appoint the next president of the European Commission is on. On May 9, the leaders of the 27 members of the European Union sans the United Kingdom met in Romania to discuss the future of the bloc. The summit resulted in a 10-point declaration calling for the union to remain united "from East to West, from North to South" and "through thick and thin." But aside from poetic declarations of unity, the meeting allowed governments to start discussing who will lead the commission for the next five years, a decision that will shape the future of EU policy.
Why It Matters
The European Commission is one of the most important institutions in the European Union because it proposes legislation, enforces EU policies and represents the bloc abroad. So even though the commission is supposed to represent the European Union as a whole, national governments have an interest in appointing presidents who are in line with their own priorities. The future commission president — and his or her political leanings — will depend heavily on the results of the European Parliament elections, which will take place between May 23 and 26. But the exact process for determining the president is a subject of hot debate.
Some countries want that the next commission president to be the leader of the political group that controls the most seats in the European Parliament — a selection process known as "spitzenkandidat," or "lead candidate." Germany is the main supporter of this mechanism because Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union belongs to the European People's Party (EPP), the group expected to win the most seats in the parliamentary elections. Moreover, the EPP's lead candidate is a German national.
A conservative European Commission president would focus on issues such as negotiating free trade agreements around the world and increasing the bloc's fight against irregular immigration, while a progressive president would prioritize fiscal transfers across the bloc and measures to deepen economic integration in the eurozone.
France is the largest opponent of the spitzenkandidat system. President Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party is in negotiations to form a small centrist bloc in the European Parliament, which means it would have no chance of gaining the presidency if the system is used. France believes that the commission president should be appointed through negotiation among the national governments, as stipulated by the Lisbon Treaty. Reinforcing France's position is the fact that the May elections are likely to result in a fragmented European Parliament where no party controls an absolute majority of seats. During the Romania summit, the leaders of Luxembourg and Lithuania also criticized the spitzenkandidat mechanism, while Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz defended it.
The method that the European Commission chooses to determine its leader will ultimately influence the bloc's policies for the next five years. A conservative EU Commission president would focus on issues such as negotiating free trade agreements around the world and increasing the bloc's fight against irregular immigration, while a progressive president would prioritize fiscal transfers across the bloc and measures to deepen economic integration in the eurozone. Still, EU governments will try to balance the distribution of power, and the losers in the commission presidency negotiations will probably be awarded positions such as European Central Bank president and high representative for foreign affairs.
What Happens Next
In 2014, it took three months for the European Union to appoint a commission president. The bloc wants to make the appointment faster this time, but it will not be easy. Leaders will meet again on May 28 to discuss the results of the European Parliament elections, then they will hold a summit on June 20-21, where they could make a first attempt at appointing a president. The new commission president will have to be ratified by the European Parliament and is expected to take office in October.