The race for the EU’s top leadership jobs just got a little murkier with news that France will put forward outgoing French Minister of Finance Pierre Moscovici as its nominee for a European Commission post.
That undermines the chances of two potential compromise candidates — both French — to head the executive body, in what is expected to be a tough fight between national governments and the European Parliament in June, with the added spice of a euroskeptic Britain following its own agenda.
The European Parliament, the EU’s directly elected body, wants the next commission president — the big prize — to be the leading candidate of the political group which wins the most votes in next month’s European elections.
The floor leaders of the three biggest political parties said as much on Thursday last week in a joint statement: “The next elected commission president will be the result of a transparent process, not the product of back-room deals.”
However, if no party wins a clear victory, and if Britain objects to the official frontrunners as too integrationist, the top job may go to a dark-horse third candidate, as it did in 2004, when Portugal’s Jose Manuel Barroso was picked to break a deadlock.
Two of the most frequently mentioned compromise figures are French: IMF managing director Christine Lagarde and former WTO director-general Pascal Lamy. Both are regarded as competent, market-friendly technocrats with a track record of running complex bureaucracies, but a candidate must be put forward by their home country, and France can name only one commission member.
So if Moscovici has been promised that slot, as he and government sources said when he lost his Cabinet seat this week, that would appear to rule out either the center-right Lagarde, a former finance minister, or Lamy, a moderate Socialist seen by some on the French left as too supportive of globalization.
Even if Moscovici ends up in the planned role of full-time chairman of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers rather than in the commission, it is highly unlikely that France could land two top jobs. However, one seasoned EU diplomat said it was conceivable that other EU leaders could appeal to French President Francois Hollande to change his nominee, for Europe’s sake.
Diplomats say British Prime Minister David Cameron has told some EU colleagues privately that neither of the current Spitzenkandidaten (frontrunners) — German Social Democrat Martin Schulz and center-right Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker — is acceptable to London.
Both are seen as old-fashioned federalists, anathema to a country seeking to erase the EU’s treaty aim of “ever-closer union,” and a liability when Cameron plans to renegotiate membership terms and put the result to a British referendum in 2017.
Previous British prime ministers vetoed Belgian favorites for the commission presidency in 1994 and 2004.
Although London has no veto this time over a decision now subject to qualified majority voting, it might find enough allies to block either man, and anyway the EU does not normally outvote a big member state on a matter of national interest. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also voiced skepticism on Thursday about the Spitzenkandidat system.
The commission presidency is just one of four or five top jobs that will be carved up among member states respecting a delicate balance between north and south, east and west, large states and small ones, left, right and center, men and women.
While insisting he is running to head the commission, Juncker, 59, has said he would be honored to serve as president of the European Council, succeeding Belgian Herman van Rompuy as full-time chairman of EU summits, a key broker of compromises.
The other jobs in the mix include EU foreign policy chief, currently held by Britain’s Catherine Ashton, the Eurogroup chairman and the president of the European Parliament.
Other potential contenders include Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta on the center-left, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and the prime ministers of Finland and Ireland, Jyrki Katainen and Enda Kenny, on the center-right.
Each has drawbacks as well as advantages and none stands out as an overwhelming natural choice, but then nor did Barroso.
Thorning-Schmidt’s country is not in the eurozone and some may argue that Nordic Social Democrats already have one big job with the appointment last week of former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg as the new secretary-general of NATO.
Italy already has a major European position, with Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank. That would appear to rule out Letta, 47, and his predecessor, Mario Monti, 71, who is still revered in Brussels.
Grybauskaite, 58, a former EU budget commissioner who shares with the late Margaret Thatcher the nickname “Iron Lady,” would tick the gender, east European and small-country boxes.
However, some might object that she was a member of the Soviet Communist Party. She also appears to have taken herself out of the EU race by standing for a second term as Lithuanian president in May.
Katainen, 42, is a highly regarded modernizing ex-finance minister who has held together an unwieldy left-right coalition, but his country’s hard line on bailouts in the eurozone crisis may make him unattractive to southern EU states.
Kenny, 62, is admired for his leadership during Ireland’s successful bailout program, but the former schoolteacher has no international experience or foreign languages.
Thorning-Schmidt, 47, gained overnight celebrity with a “selfie” picture taken with US President Barack Obama and Britain’s Cameron at a memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. However, the economic reformer has struggled to keep her ruling coalition together and is not popular with voters.
A Brussels insider said she and Kenny also suffer among core EU countries from being perceived as “the British candidates.”
Additional reporting by Luke Baker and Andrius Sytas