Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Four scenarios to determine European Council leadership

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The appointment of Charles Michel’s successor will be less a matter of names as which of four key configurations arise following this week’s election.

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The contest for leadership of European Council – the prize of steering EU leaders through the next five-year mandate – entails peculiarities making it notoriously difficult to predict.

The gathering of EU heads of state and government is an elite club and those wishing to chair it should’ve attended it previously – so serving as political head of state is one condition for appointment.

But it also acts as a key post for maintaining balance across the appointments of top EU jobs, and offers a counter-weight to the choice of Commission president.

Different post-election scenarios are likely to determine who will take the helm of the European Council, rather than lists of likely names.

Here are four potential post-election screenplays.

‘The Usual Suspects’

If everything goes smoothly for Ursula von der Leyen’s re-appointment as Commission chief, the European Council presidency slot is bound to go to the socialists.

If this scenario materialises, the money is on Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Portugal’s former head of Portugal’s government António Costa for the Council chair.

Public opinion in Denmark takes Frederiksen’s appointment almost for granted while Portuguese consider Costa the country’s best chance of an EU top job since José Manuel Barroso left the Commission ten years ago.

Costa starts slightly behind after a sudden investigation into a corruption scandal – from which he’s been cleared – led to his resignation last year, but his stock remains high with other EU leaders.

On the other hand, Frederiksen will be playing her cards from inside the casino.

Spain’s Pedro Sanchez was also considered a candidate when on the verge of resigning from office a few weeks ago but his domestic situation has since significantly improved, although his name is still doing the rounds in Brussels.

The plot twist –  any ‘The Usual Suspects’ scenario needs one – could be former Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin, a socialist dark horse among EU leaders.

‘Knives Out’

A free-for-all scenario in which socialists could be excluded from the power-sharing is not out of the question, particularly if the majority required to appoint the Commission is expanded to accommodate hard right parties like Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

As in the movie ‘Knives Out’, EU leaders with more experience in chaotic all-night talks can prevail – and French President Emmanuel Macron, with experience of negotiating the EU top jobs in 2019 could finetune a deal to reappoint another liberal in the wake of Charles Michel.

Two liberals, in particular, could be perfect for the post, each name comes with caveats however.

Estonia’s PM Kaja Kallas is already earmarked as a potential EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs but she could suddenly find herself in the mix for chairing the European Council in this scenario.

However, many consider her parti pris on Russia, an issue that might have scuttled her chances of becoming the next NATO Secretary General already.

The second option is Belgium’s PM Alexander De Croo, who has been politically active during the Belgian presidency of the EU Council. De Croo is looking for a job as he’s not expected to play a major role in national politics after the June elections.

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A problem: he would be the third Belgian appointed to the job after Charles Michel and Herman Van Rompuy, and this could raise eyebrows in many countries, particularly to the east.

‘Anatomy of a Fall’

What looks more like a disaster movie scenario for the European People’s Party (EPP) would be to lead the largest parliamentary group in the Parliament and yet be unable to  secure the head of the EU executive.

The anatomy of the EPP’s fall would see the centre-right ensure at least the Council presidency instead. The strongest names in this scenario are those leaders who would like to flex their muscles on an international stage.

Andrej Plenković, Croatia’s prime minister since 2016, is one such and has recently survived some tense elections. His main political opponent, the country’s president Zoran Milanović, pressured him during the campaign saying he was planning to leave national politics and succeed Charles Michel.

Another who might like to escape national politics is Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. A long shot could be former Finnish prime minister Alex Stubb too, although he has just begun a mandate as Finnish president.

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‘A Man for All Seasons’

As the satirical X account Berlaymonster pointed out, Mario Draghi has been in the mix for literally every job lately.

The Italian is the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, the name no one can refuse if put on the table – and, for this reason, expected to be played quite late in the talks.

As with Thomas More in Fred Zinnemann’s classic movie, he’s the man for all seasons, and could take whatever role in the next EU legislative mandate. We know he wouldn’t like to be European Council president, but when the EU calls, ‘Super Mario’ might feel compelled to answer.

We don’t know if the EU will make that call: Thomas More was also a learned sage whose advice was sought by kings and potentates – though it ended badly and headless.

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