On the walls of the Berlaymont, the imposing edifice of the European Commission in Brussels, the framed faces of past commission presidents peer down on visitors. From the first-ever Commission president, the German Walter Hallstein (1958-1967), to the famous Frenchman Jacques Delors (1985-1995), to the incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg (2014-2019), the portraits tell the history of the European Union. And among these founding fathers, in 2019, there is still not a single woman.
Could this change in November, when the Commission is renewed, and a new president arises? After last week’s European elections — forcing unprecedented alliances to be struck in the European parliament — the race for the presidency has become a complex and rather confusing affair. Lead candidates of the main parliamentary groupings have been openly criticised by European leaders; outsiders are throwing their name in the ring; and some are even keeping their bid secret for now (looking at you, Michel Barnier).
One hopeful rallying support across the political divide is Margrethe Vestager, the EU commissioner for competition, renowned for calling Apple and Google to account. Originally from Denmark, she is known for inspiring the Danish political TV series Borgen. Previously one of seven names presented by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), she announced on Sunday (26 May) that she was officially a lead candidate for the presidency.
These are new times for the EU. The possibility of the first female head of the Commission coincides with a new era for the European parliament: the long-standing binary system, through which the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Social Democrats ruled in coalition, is over.
Last week’s European elections left a fragmented parliament in which no two-party alliance can command a majority (373 MEPs). At present, the EPP is the largest grouping with 179 MEPs, closely followed by the Social Democrats with 153, but both lost 42 and 38 seats respectively. By comparison, the ALDE won 105 seats, an increase of 38. The Greens, who enjoyed their strongest-ever showing (winning 69 MEPs) advanced in many European countries, most notably Germany, where the Green Party finished second, and France, where it finished third. Populist and nationalist parties also won greater support and now hold almost 25 per cent of seats (out of a total of 751).
The traditional means of selecting a president, the Spitzenkandidaten process, would see the leader of the largest party nominated by the European Council and confirmed by the European Parliament. But the absence of any majority paved the way for coalition talks, which started on Monday and are ongoing.
The abolition of the Spitzenkandidaten system, an idea some European leaders have floated, would be seen as an attack on the parliament’s influence. “The key issue is for the Spitzenkandidat to become president of the commission and not something else,” Martin Selmayr, the powerful secretary general of the commission, said on Sunday, clearly citing the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulates that “the European parliament elects the president of the European commission”, and recommending “democratic patience”. After the gains made by nationalists in the EU elections, the European parliament hopes to restrain the far-right.
In view of this, EU leaders, who met in Brussels earlier this week, have given the European parliament until 21 June to present a presidential candidate who would command a majority in the house. But some leaders also used the meeting to send a strong message against the EPP’s candidate, Manfred Weber. Asked who he would support, France’s Emmanuel Macron name-dropped Barnier, Vestager and the Social Democrats’ Frans Timmermans, but made no mention of Weber.
Meanwhile, Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg has praised Vestager’s “competence” and, though Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has been more guarded, he is believed to agree with his fellow liberals. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has firmly supported the traditional candidate process, is also starting to doubt Weber. Unlike in 2014, when the EPP’s Juncker was elected, Weber is not part of the leaders’ gang (Juncker was previously Luxembourg’s prime minister) and — crucially in bilingual Brussels — he does not speak French.
Why Vestager then? She, too, lacks the “executive experience” Macron and other leaders want to see in the next Commission president — but this condition rules out almost everyone, Barnier included. Alongside Macron, she has received the support of Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and her ALDE party’s gains ensure influence in making or breaking a parliamentary alliance.
But this doesn’t make Vestager the natural choice either. The EPP, predictably, has said that handing Vestager the top job is “out of the question” (and her French is only marginally better than Weber’s). It all hinges on how to interpret the Spitzenkandidat process: in theory, the marginalisation of Weber, despite his group winning the most seats, is already a breach. And if Weber is out, Timmermans, the Social Democrat leader, should be next in line, But if the ALDE holds the key to assembling a coalition, Vestager could potentially become an acceptable compromise.
Indeed, if the Commission wants, in Macron’s words, to embody “credibility, renewal and a new heading for European policy”, Vestager might just be the woman for the job. It is past time for a female portrait to join the male, pale and stale faces on the Berlaymont walls — and who better than the commissioner who challenged the web giants and won?