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22 October 2018updated 07 Jun 2021 1:34pm

Why the EU’s new top team is a setback for pro-Europeans

By Stephen Bush

After three days of wrangling, European leaders have agreed which top jobs should go to who. Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s centre-right defence minister, will become President of the European Commission, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker. Belgium’s Prime Minister, centre-leftish Charles Michel, will become President of the European Council, replacing Donald Tusk. Josep Borrell, Spain’s foreign minister, becomes the EU’s high representative in charge of foreign affairs, replacing Federica Mogherini in the role that may well go down in history as the last top EU job held by a Briton. (Catherine Ashton, trivia fans!) And at the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF and finance minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, will replace Mario Draghi. 

Although the accord has been signed off by the leaders of member states, it must still be ratified by the European Parliament, and von der Leyen’s nomination in particular is still the subject of fierce opposition in the parliament. 

But let’s say it goes ahead: what does it mean, and which European leaders have done well out of it? The agreement is a whomping defeat for the Spitzenkandidaten system, where the pan-European parties (the centre-right European People’s Party, the centre-left Party of European Socialists, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, soon to be renamed Renew Europe) nominate candidates for the top posts and whoever wins the elections across the bloc gets to have their chosen candidate installed in the top post. In the end, none of the candidates selected by the pan-European parties got the big jobs, with horse-trading among individual member states once again the crucial factor.

Assuming it goes ahead, who are the big winners? Most obviously, it’s a victory for Belgium’s Charles Michel, who has carved out a lifeboat for himself away from the jockeying for power in his country, which could yet see his Reform Movement tossed out of power. It’s a coup for Angela Merkel, who has managed to back a nice little sinecure for von der Leyen, a Merkel loyalist once widely tipped as her chosen successor, whose handling of the defence brief saw her miss out on the top job. And it tilts the balance of European power a little to the left. 

It’s a qualified victory for Emmanuel Macron. He has frustrated, and quite probably destroyed the Spitzenkandidaten (or “lead candidate”) system, which he dislikes, in exchange for a return to the previous era of European power politics. He has successfully found a top job for his Renew Europe group in Michel’s job as Commission President. He prevented Manfred Webber, the EPP’s candidate, from taking the EU’s top post. And he has bagged a big job for a French national in Lagarde, though the IMF chief has no experience in monetary policy at a fraught time for the global economy. Against that, he failed to secure his first choice as Commission President in the Socialist Frans Timmermans. 

It is a setback for British pro-Europeans, for two reasons. Firstly, it will allow Brexiteers to point to David Cameron’s failure to block Juncker and argue that the United Kingdom’s voice will never carry particularly far. That isn’t really true: what these negotiations show is that had Cameron had a candidate for the role, which Macron did, he would probably have got what he wanted. Instead, Cameron merely opposed Juncker but had nothing to put in its place. It’s also a boost for Eurosceptics, both here and across the bloc, that the promise that the votes cast in the European elections would decide the top posts has been so visibly broken. 

But more importantly, the major blow for people campaigning to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union is that Donald Tusk is exiting the scene. Tusk is a politician who sees the European project fundamentally as a peace project, a shining city on the hill for everyone on the continent aiming for freedom, liberty and openness. When the 27 member states have discussed whether to grant the UK an extension, Tusk has been a voice arguing that they be given more time. 

Now he has been replaced by a politician from the European core, which may have significant consequences for anyone hoping that the EU will grant another extension to a country that has yet to reach a consensus on whether to continue with or scrap Brexit. That too, might be a victory of sorts for Macron, and his ambitions for wide-ranging reform, particularly to the Eurozone.

But I wonder: we might look back on the French president’s successful summitry as a hollow victory. No-one could claim that the Spitzenkandidates electrified the European election campaign across the bloc, but there were signs that it was encouraging political parties at least to think in a more European way. In the Netherlands, that Frans Timmermans was top of the PES ticket helped the Dutch Labour Party to its best result in seven years in a country: a heartening sign of engagement in the bloc in a one of the EU’s more Eurosceptic countries. Even here in the UK, Labour activists, MPs and MEPs used the prospect of a Timmermans-led EU as an argument to stick with their party rather than defecting to the Liberal Democrats and Greens. The line was not particularly effective but it is, again, a major step forward for a party whose pro-European internationalism is often muted and framed solely in terms of the economic gains of EU membership.

Macron decried the horsetrading, but the consequence of undermining the Spitzenkandidate system is more horsetrading, not less, and frankly, while indirectly electing the EU’s top jobs is not going to turn back the tides of Euroscepticism across the continent, or make Europeans more inclined to buy into big European-wide reforms, it’s not clear what other political process is going to do the same thing. A win for Macron, yes: but not necessarily one for his project.

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