A five-point guide to the EU top jobs puzzle

This weekend, the European Council will meet again to decide on the holders of the EU’s top jobs.

Here’s our five-point guide to Saturday’s meeting and what it means – and have your say on one of the key issues of the summer by voting in our poll.

1. Time for action

hvr squareAfter the failure to agree on the top jobs at the last summit in July, European Union leaders are under pressure to reach an accord. The European Council is increasingly gaining a reputation as an institution that takes too long to decide anything, and whose decisions are often ‘fudges’.

Saturday is the crunch moment: if EU leaders fail to conclude a ‘package’ of appointments, it will put paid to any remote hopes of appointing the Commission on time. More importantly in the long term, it will increase popular and global perceptions of the EU as a sclerotic organisation. Herman Van Rompuy (pictured left), the President of the European Council, was criticised by EU leaders and many analysts for not preparing a watertight deal before July’s summit (although he was not helped by some prime ministers). The President will not want another failure.

The decisions are not easy: there are significant political, institutional and personal headaches for the 28 leaders. But the leaders are there to lead, and to decide. It’s time to act.

2. The High Representative – the vital link in the whole chain

The key appointment on Saturday will be that of the High Representative: as a member of the European Commission, his or her appointment unlocks the whole process: the allocation of other portfolios in the Commission, and the choices for other senior roles. July’s failure to appoint the next foreign policy chief has meant a messy summer, with the President-elect of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, unable to allocate portfolios, and some member states, such as the Netherlands, even unwilling to name their nominee (or list of nominees) to the Commission.

Kristalina GeorgievaThe official contenders for the role at the moment are Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva (pictured right), the current Humanitarian Aid Commissioner, from the European People’s Party; Poland’s Foreign Minister, Radosław Sikorski (also from the EPP); and Sikorski’s Italian counterpart Federica Mogherini, from the Party of European Socialists.

Mogherini is the only one of these candidates who fits the criteria set by some EU leaders (notably from France, Italy and Germany) after the last summit – namely that the High Representative should be a female PES member. The heightening of tensions between Russia and the EU over Ukraine following the downing of the Malysian Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine may have damaged the chances of a figure seen as too open to Moscow. The increasingly worrying general foreign policy situation may lead European Council members to go for a more experienced hand (Mogherini has been a foreign minister for only six months).

However, Der Spiegel reported this week that she is still the favourite, with Valdis Dombrovskis, Latvia’s former prime minister, a possible Eastern European counterweight as European Council President.

As for Sikorski, he may be too critical of Moscow, and too independently-minded, for some in the European Council. There are also rumours that his nomination is a gambit to secure a better portfolio for Poland within the Commission. It is thought that Poland wants the energy portfolio, but this approach can end in disappointment, as it is difficult for commissioners – whose role is to defend the European interest – to favour (or even be perceived as favouring) their own country’s position.

Georgieva, while not a current or former foreign minister, is well-regarded by Jean-Claude Juncker, has significant international experience (including at the World Bank), and has done her current job well (noting that she was not even the original Bulgarian nominee in 2009-2010). She also adds geographical and gender balance to the top jobs ‘package’.

As for the ‘outsiders’, Frans Timmermans – widely praised for his conduct after the plane crash in Ukraine, which claimed dozens of Dutch lives – may be an option. The Dutch government, which has not yet nominated a commissioner, may just be waiting to see whether Timmermans, from the PES, can secure the role.

3. It’s all about balance (part 1)

The choice of High Representative will necessarily have an impact on the choice of a new President of the European Council, as we wrote about last month, ahead of the last European Council meeting.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

The apparent favourite to succeed Herman Van Rompuy is the Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (pictured right), despite her protests that she doesn’t want the job. Already the criteria seem to have narrowed – the consensus at July’s summit being that a current member of the European Council should take the role (which would rule out Andrus Ansip, Enrico Letta, and Valdis Dombrovskis, who left their roles as prime ministers of Estonia, Italy and Latvia respectively within the last twelve months). However, Dombrovskis’ re-emergence as a candidate suggests that this particular race is wide open.

If ‘HTS’ is to succeed ‘HVR’, then the centre-right is almost certain to gain the role of High Representative. If Sikorski or Georgieva is chosen, the leaders will manage to secure a decent political,  gender and geographical (East-West) balance among the top jobs. (The expected nomination of Luis de Guindos, Spain’s economy minister, as Eurogroup President will help redress the North-South balance.)

Should Mogherini get the nod as High Representative, an EPP figure from central or Eastern Europe – such as Dombrovskis, or Poland’s Donald Tusk – would probably be needed. If Timmermans takes the foreign policy job, then a figure like Lithuania’s President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, is an option to ensure female representation among the top jobs.

There are numerous permutations, but all, realistically, have to pass the three ‘balance’ tests – political, geographical and gender. A Georgieva/Thorning-Schmidt ticket may also help with another issue that threatens to delay the insitutional changeover.

4. It’s all about balance (part 2)

Nominations so far to the European Commission - click to enlarge

Nominations so far to the European Commission – click to enlarge

After the battle over the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president, member states and the European Parliament face a new battle over the composition of the rest of the Commission, and specifically the number of female commissioners.

Many MEPs – including the Parliament’s President, Martin Schulz, political groups and national delegations – have indicated that a team with fewer than nine women (the current number) would face rejection.

On 10 July, the female commissioners sent a letter to Juncker highlighting the need for ten or more women in the new team, with the #tenormore hashtag pushed on social media by commissioners including Neelie Kroes (pictured below) and Androulla Vassiliou.

Juncker himself has told the European Council – and stated publicly – that he would not accept a Commission with an “insufficient number of women”. And yet throughout the summer, prime minister after prime minister nominated men.

A dozen male nominees had been put forward before the first female name – Věra Jourová, a Liberal from the Czech Republic – was announced. Cecilia Malmström, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, was the second Liberal, with Georgieva (the sole women out of 13 European People’s Party nominees) and Mogherini completing the female quartet.

Meanwhile, 19 men have been named. Of the five countries yet to choose or publicly announce their nominee, Belgium – which has never nominated a woman – has been thought likely to nominate its foreign minister, Didier Reynders – mainly as a way of managing a delicate domestic political balancing act. However, Belgian media reports suggest that Juncker would hand Belgium only a minor portfolio, as a way of encouraging the outgoing government to name a woman instead (Marianne Thyssen, a centre-right MEP, is the other main contender).

Twitter - @NeelieKroesEU

Twitter – @NeelieKroesEU

Cyprus is thought to have put forward an MEP, Christos Stylianides. Denmark is thought to have submitted two names (a man and a woman) and Slovenia three (a man and two women – one of whom is the outgoing Prime Minister, Alenka Bratušek).

All this leaves Juncker with a problem, and not one that can be solved easily. The President-elect has already said it will take ‘one or two weeks’ after the European Council to name his team, giving himself time to allocate portfolios and probably embark on a series of (perhaps difficult) conversations with EU leaders.

Juncker is likely to promise a better portfolio in exchange for a different (and female) nominee. Juncker’s right-hand man, Martin Selmayr, has already hinted that some countries have alternatives lined up (and maybe the initial nominations were a bargaining chip in this process). However, it represents another battle with member states, some of whom were less than enthusiastic about his nomination.

The group of nominees Juncker has is, on paper, more able and more senior than some previous Colleges (including Juncker, there are four former prime ministers, eight current commissioners, current and former foreign ministers, and a number of others with senior national experience).

There is more than one ‘balance’ issue – more than half of the nominees so far come from the EPP, despite the centre-right suffering heavy losses in the European Parliament elections and the establishment of a ‘grand coalition’ in the Parliament.

But the gender issue is totemic – Socialists, Greens, Liberals and the far left in the Parliament will want at least ten female commissioners (although there may be room for negotiation if Georgieva and Thorning-Schmidt take the High Representative and European Council President roles respectively).

Juncker is clear that he wants more women on his team, and the treaty states that the Council adopts the names of the other commissioners “by common accord with the President-elect”. Juncker can veto the nominations, and a rejection en bloc of the names provided by the member states is already being mooted by sources quoted by Belgian daily Le Soir.

You can give your view on whether Juncker should give his agreement to a team featuring fewer than ten women by voting in our poll (see right).

5. There are bigger issues…

Saturday’s European Council takes place against a gloomy backdrop. Since EU leaders last met in July, the situation in Ukraine, Gaza, Syria and Iraq has become more worrying, and more deadly. The Ebola virus has reached Europe.

Personnel decisions are important, but pale in comparison to some of the threats facing the continent and the instability in its ‘neighbourhood’. The longer Europe discusses who will be the decision-makers and the spokespeople – rather than taking decisions and speaking up – the more irrelevant it will seem in the eyes of the world. Without a Commission in place, Jean-Claude Juncker’s programme remains just that – a programme.

Summer is over – it’s time to get back to work.

David O’Leary