EU election - future of the Commission
Who will be the next Jean-Claude Juncker?
The results of the European elections could go a long way to deciding who will be the next president of the EU Commission. We take a look at the candidates in the running – and their likely chances of success.
Each of the European political groups has publicly announced its transnational ‘spitzenkandidat’ (‘lead candidates’), making them in effect the faces of their parties’ election bids. The process, introduced for the 2014 elections, is how the European Commission president is chosen. It is expected that, like last time, the victor will be from the group that wins the most seats in the European parliamentary elections. In 2014 that was Jean Claude Juncker.
However in these elections the Spitzenkandidaten process is not expected to be as straightforward as it was five years ago. Firstly, there seems little chance of a single party winning an absolute majority, and parliament has to agree on a candidate before the member states in the council have their say. Secondly, in a more volatile political climate it may prove harder for the member states to reach a decision. Thirdly, the European group projected to win the most seats is once again the EPP (Christian Democrats).
This time its Spitzenkandidat is a German national, something many member states may not be comfortable with given Germany’s status as Europe’s biggest and most powerful country.
Below we look at each of the candidates, review their chances of success and suggest what other positions they may eventually hold if they fail to land the commission presidency. It’s also possible that the winner may not be on this list if member states choose to go against protocol and reject the candidate put forward by parliament. If they do, the most likely contender is former commissioner Michel Barnier, who has won respect for his role in representing the commission in Brexit negotiations. Mr Barnier appears to be leading his own, albeit more discrete, election campaign at the margins.
Read more about the candidates in the running for the EU Commission’s top job
- Chairman of the EPP Group since 2014
- Conservative views on security and migration
- Long-standing supporter of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party within the EPP could hurt his chances of winning support of the other political groups. However the pair’s public relationship has cooled in recent months over Orbán’s attacks on Jean-Claude Juncker.
Weber was a member of the Bavarian Landtag (state government) from 2002-2004 and chaired the Junge Union (the youth organisation of Germany’s two conservative political parties, the CDU and CSU) until 2007. A member of the European Parliament since 2004 he was a member of several committees before being named vice-chairman of the European People’s Party (EPP) in 2009. Weber held this role until 2014 when he was elected chairman of the EPP.
Speaking at the launch of the EPP’s election campaign in Athens, Weber said it was important to stand up to nationalists that intend to harm Europe, and to rid the Continent of anti-Semitism.
Climate change is a prominent theme in his manifesto, which is a something of a departure for the EPP. Weber wants the European Commission to acknowledge it will not be possible for Europeans to tackle climate change alone and advocates working closely with the US and China.
Pushing for new fair trade agreements to ensure Europe’s critical industries are protected. Aims to introduce new rules on digital taxation to ensure the burden is shared evenly between companies. Has been outspoken throughout his campaigning in support of a change to the EU’s competition rules, which he believes must be updated to support EU champions. Following the decision to block the recent Siemens-Alstom merger, Weber has said that if chosen as Commission President he would look to amend current competition rules.
Although the EPP is likely to come out on top in the elections, it will not have an absolute majority or even the margin of victory it has enjoyed in the past. As a result it appears unlikely Weber will be put forward by parliament for the commission presidency. Even if he were to get parliament’s backing – something that would require a significant trade-off with the other political groups – it remains doubtful whether the member states would want a German in the role.
- Currently First Vice-President of the Commission, in charge of better regulation, interinstitutional relations, the rule of law and fundamental rights
- A polyglot diplomat with a specific expertise in EU affairs
- Political future in the commission uncertain due to the weak position of his party in the Netherlands
Frans Timmermans is the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of the Party of European Socialists (PES).
He previously served in PM Mark Rutte’s second cabinet as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2012 to 2014. He was also State Secretary for Foreign Affairs from 2007 to 2010 in the fourth cabinet of PM Jan-Peter Balkenende, where he was responsible for Dutch relations with Europe. A well-known politician in the Netherlands, Timmermans was an MP for the Labour Party (PvdA) from 1998 to 2007 and again from 2010 to 2012.
Before going into politics in 1998 Timmermans spent more than a decade as a diplomat. A polyglot, he studied French Literature (including at Nancy University), served in the Dutch army interrogating Russian prisoners of war and was posted at the Dutch embassy in Moscow.
Timmermans has had a lifelong love-affair with European politics. As a domestic MP he became known for his many op-eds in Dutch press on all issues European, where he would speak out on the merits of a more federal European Union.
When Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine killing 194 Dutch citizens Timmermans immediately flew in to deal with the aftermath. He won international praise a few days later for a deeply emotional speech at the UN Security Council.
At his confirmatory hearing in the European Parliament in 2014, Timmermans particularly impressed the House by answering their many questions fluently in a multitude of languages.
Although a senior role in the Juncker commission saw him billed as the ‘next big thing at EU level’, Timmermans has primarily been Juncker’s problem-fixer rather than his unofficial leader behind the scenes (a position that has gone to Juncker’s chief of staff and now-commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr). As First Vice-President, Timmermans has been handled a number of excruciatingly difficult issues, including brokering a deal with Turkey on Syrian refugees, a controversial move which has stemmed the influx of immigrants into the EU. He has also clashed, on numerous occasions, with the Hungarian and Polish governments on issues such as freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. In doing so he has had to strike a careful balance between protecting fundamental rights and maintaining a sufficiently constructive dialogue with member states to allow progress on other issues of EU co-operation.
If Timmermans does not win the commission presidency, he has made it clear he would like to be appointed the next High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Whether that job can be his depends on Dutch PM Mark Rutte, who has his own European ambitions, perhaps as President of the Council. In addition, Labour collapsed in the last Dutch elections and so is not part of the current governing coalition, a situation that doesn’t help Timmermans’ standing as the potential Dutch candidate for any top job.
ALDE decided against appointing a single Spitzenkandidat because, in its view, it did not make sense to do so due to the absence of transanational lists of candidates. However the Liberal grouping put forward a ‘Team Europe’ made up of seven European political figures, with some but not in the running to be MEPs. ALDE explained that ‘Team Europe’ is ‘passionate to renew our continent and shape its future’. The seven leaders would most probably take part in the upcoming negotiations between the political groups after the elections. However there are only two candidates in serious contention for the commission presidency: Margrethe Vestager and, to a lesser extent, Guy Verhofstadt.
- Senator of Rome and founding leader of Più Europa
- Three-time MEP(1979-1984, 1984-1989, 1999-2004)
- Former European commissioner (1995-1999)
Bonino has had an impressive career both in Italian and European politics. During her career she has been elected to the Italian chamber of deputies, and was Italian minister of European affairs and international trade, Italian foreign minister and vice-president of the Italian senate. She has served three terms as an MEP and has also been European Commissioner for Health, Consumer Policy and Fisheries.
Bonino’s CV is that of a committed pro-European. She is something of an icon in Italy, where her supporters describe her the country’s conscience. During the early part of her career she led successful campaigns to legalise abortion and divorce and later became one of Italy’s leading defenders of human rights around the world. She has spent her political life campaigning for what she calls a ‘Democratic liberal order’ and believes in the ‘centrality of the individual, his rights but also his responsibilities’.
At almost 70 years of age and having spent time out of politics after being treated for cancer, Bonino returned for the 2018 Italian national elections as leader of the Italian Radical Party ‘Più Europa’. She has been outspoken on increasing incidences of political intolerance on both the left and the right, racist attacks and the lack of resilience in institutions. One of her top priorities in Italy is to give legal status to thousands of migrants who are in the country illegally. ‘Sooner or later, we will recognise that we need them,’ she said. ‘For the moment the political mood is so bad, so unhealthy, that there is no way to talk rationally.’
The theme has carried through into this year’s European election campaign, with Bonino saying: ‘It is clear that we are against nationalism and populism,’ and ‘I do not think that a negative campaign is enough, it is important to have a campaign of hope to move forward.’
Bonino has been chosen to join Team Europe because she has a strong profile in European politics and is seen as the right person to tackle some of the most pressing questions the EU faces. A more ambitious EU budget on climate, full and real gender balance, tackling unfair competition and youth-friendly policies lie at the heart of her political message and ambitions.
- Leader of the ALDE group
- Two-time MEP (2009-2014 and 2014-2019)
- European Parliament’s Brexit representative
- Former Prime Minister of Belgium
Verhofstadt is, like his fellow members of Team Europe, is staunch pro-European. His political career began in 1982 when he became president of the Flemish Liberals and Democrats. From 1985 to 1991 he was Belgium’s deputy PM and budget minister before becoming prime minister in 1999 - the first liberal to hold the post since 1938. He served for three consecutive terms, pushing through noteworthy laws such as the introduction of gay marriage and legalising euthanasia. Verhofstadt became known as ‘baby Thatcher’ in his early years for his neoliberal economic views, but he is now resolutely centrist and Euro-federalist – a position outlined in his book The United States of Europe. His vision of a reformed EU would see decisions made much more quickly and voters given a direct say in the its future direction.
In 2009 Verhofstadt was elected to the European Parliament and became leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group. From this platform he has fiercely criticised the timidity of the commission and member states in dealing with the financial crisis – something that he sees as requiring much deeper economic and political integration. In the last term Verhofstadt was leader of parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, which is co-ordinating dialogue with the Article 50 negotiating taskforce. In this position his statements criticising UK politicians have often made headlines.
Verhofstadt is a committed European federalist who has been named as a candidate for the commission presidency before, only to fail to win sufficient support on account of these views. He is the only progressive EU lawmaker to consistently go viral with his tweets and speeches and is known for his emphatic approach.
Speaking at a debate on the future of Europe, Verhoftstadt again said that after the elections he wants to form a new, ‘centrist political family’, which would probably President Macron’s En Marche MEPs.
He wants to build a stronger EU as counterweight to the US and China, and believes this can be achieved by co-operation and harmonisation of rules. He also supports a more proactive EU approach to climate change which would see environmental standards included in trade agreements. Controversially, he also believes in the creation of a European army and a common migration policy and asylum system.
Although Verhofstadt has the credentials and profile to become the commission president his outspoken nature has made him unpopular with EU leaders. However this is perfectly suited to the European Parliament, where it’s likely he will return following the elections, possibly as president, vice president or chair of one of its committees, which could be the prize for any deal between the EU parties on who gets the top jobs.
- Founder member of the Momentum Movement
- Doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology
Cseh, 31, has never been elected to political office but worked as the international liaison officer of the Liberal Youth Association between 2012 and 2016. Despite being a member of the ALDE Party she defines herself as a centrist rather than a liberal.
She describes her political agenda as focused on three pillars: healthcare, education and employment. In recent months her views on issues such as corruption, propaganda and fake news have resonated in Hungary. She further vocally supports equal rights and LGBTQI initiatives.
On the campaign trail, Cseh has underlined her wish to work on a cross-party basis with opposition MEPs ‘who side with Europe against Orbán’ as she feels that they have a duty to present a joint position on issues relating to the state of the rule of law in Hungary.
- Professor of economics
- Head of economic and employment policy for Ciudadanos (Spain’s Citizens Party)
Luis Garicano is a visiting professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and professor of economics and strategy at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on subjects including the impact of globalisation and information technology on economic growth, inequality and productivity. Away from his career as an academic, Garicano worked as an economist for the European Commission (between 1992 and 1993) and McKinsey & Company, and was an independent director of Liberbank between 2012 and 2016.
Following the financial crisis Garicano co-authored a proposal on European safe bonds (ESBies) which was taken up by the European Commission in 2018 (then renamed SBBS). He has actively been promoting structural reforms in Spain, especially in its labour market, healthcare and pension systems, which culminated in the publication of his first book El dilema de Espana in 2014.
The following year Garicano joined Ciudadanos. He is considered the architect of the party’s ideological transition from social democracy to progressive liberalism. In December 2016, Garicano was named Vice President of the ALDE Party.
At a recent event co-hosted by Bruegel and the Financial Times, Garicano foreshadowed that the liberals would take a more proactive stance on competition law issues in the digital market (for example AI and big data), where he noted that Europe is lagging the US and China in its technological development. He wants an overhaul of the European Emissions Trading System which he says is ‘not working’. On trade, he remarked that the EU ‘misread China dramatically’ and should present a united front with the US, on the WTO stage.
- Current EU competition commissioner
- Known as a fearless regulator and smart communicator
Margrethe Vestager has made a name for herself by concluding a number of investigations left by her predecessor, including three antitrust cases against Google. An inspiration for the writers of the Danish political series Borgen, Vestager does not shy away from confrontation in her desire to get the job done.
Before becoming a commissioner she was minister in Denmark three times. Latterly, from 2011-2014 she held the post of Minister for Economic Affairs and the Interior, where she dealt with the wave of legislation that followed the financial crisis.
Vestager has been elected to the Danish parliament twice (2001-2007 and 2007-2014) and during the latter was the political leader of Denmark’s Social Liberal Party. Her party – Radikale Venstre in Danish –translates literally as ‘radical left’, although in reality it is at the centre of the Danish political spectrum, considered as social-liberal on ethical and moral issues and more free-market liberal on economic issues.
Vestager holds a Master of Economics from the University of Copenhagen and is well-known in Brussels thanks to her mastery of social media. This, and her impressive track-record, make her a serious contender for the commission presidency. She reportedly has the informal support of liberal leaders in Europe including Emmanuel Macron and the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel. The prospect of appointing the first female president is known to appeal to both the European Parliament and member states.
However there are obstacles in her way. Firstly, the current Danish Prime Minister has said he will not nominate Vestager, who represents a different party and is not in the current governing coalition. With general elections in Denmark in June, Vestager’s party could join a new government but this seems unlikely right now. Furthermore, Denmark is not a member of the eurozone, which further hurts her chances.
- Lead-candidate for the Liberal Party in the EU elections in Germany
- Currently a member of the German federal Parliament
- Expertise in education and R&D issues
Nicola Beer was born in Wiesbaden and joined the German Liberal party (FDP) in 1991. First elected as a city counsellor in Frankfurt in 1997, she later served as deputy chairman of the city. Between 1999 and 2009, she was a member of the state parliament of Hesse.
Since 2013, she has been the FDP’s secretary general in Germany. She was elected a member of the federal parliament in 2017 and is currently heading the FDP list for the European parliamentary elections in Germany.
Beer is one of Team Europe’s key candidates and has said that these elections are about ‘opening the door for renewal’. She also stressed the ‘great importance’ of the vote because ‘the question of whether the Union falls apart or is able to reform to create future prospects may depend on its outcome’. She advocates creating a two-speed EU which would allow ‘motivated member states’ to join forces and move forward together on ‘big issues’ such as ‘migration, development policy, securing external borders, internal security and digitisation’. This approach ‘would have the advantage of some states being able to co-operate in a certain field and to show whether this integration is feasible and where the advantages are. It would be similar to the euro.’
Beer (who has a self-confessed passion for education and R&D), believes that ‘we have so many brilliant minds but the EU’s education and research area is not where it should be’.
- Current European Commissioner for Mobility and Transport
- Former deputy prime minister of Slovenia
After studying computer science in her home country and the US, Bulc’s career has been largely in the private sector. She didn’t enter politics until relatively late in life, joining the newly formed SMC party as chief of its programme committee in 2013. When SMC entered government the following year, Bulc was appointed deputy prime minister with responsibility for development, strategic projects and cohesion.
As a current commissioner, Bulc has participated in a number of citizens’ dialogues (a commission-led initiative encouraging town-hall discussions on its work in member states), including with Team Europe running mate Margrethe Vestager. Bulc has acknowledged that the EU has faced unprecedented challenges in recent years and, despite accusations that its decision-making is too slow, has warned against simplified solutions. In her view the EU’s biggest asset is that member states can discuss and reach agreement on all kinds of issues, and even if this takes time such consensus moves the EU forward.
- Former MEP who is running for re-election
- Founder and former chair of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group
Zahradil’s political career began when he was elected to the Federal Parliament of Czechoslovakia in 1992 as a representative of the ODS Party (of which he is a founding member). Following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia he worked as an adviser to the then-Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus and in 1998 became an MP, playing a role in the Czech Republic’s accession to the EU in 2004.
Zahradil is the president of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ECR), a conservative European political movement. As an MEP he specialised in international trade issues and was involved specifically in EU-Asia relations.
With his slogan ‘Retune the EU’, Zahradil is generally in favour of EU competences being returned to the member states rather than further integration. Specifically, he argues that ‘the principle of flexible integration is not compatible with the progressive intrusion of qualified majority voting into unanimous decision making’ and says that ‘tax competition [is] one of the sources of European prosperity’. He believes countries should not be obliged to join the euro on accession, but if they choose not to it should not result in conditions that would make it harder to do later.
Zahradil is against reforming competition law to facilitate European champions, is supportive of opening EU markets to non-EU products in a limited and controlled way (if reciprocated), and is pushing for a general review of the EU institutions and agencies as well as a freeze on new proposals apart from those agreed unanimously by the council.
Having said all this he stands no chance of being appointed commission president. He will not win the support of the other political groups in the parliament (particularly those on the left) due to his conservative views. Furthermore, Zahradil’s ODS party is not part of the Czech Republic’s governing coalition, meaning the country’s PM is unlikely to push for his appointment either.
- Co-chair of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
A member of Germany’s Green Party since 2001 (and its leader between 2007 and 2009, when she was elected an MEP), Keller aims to do nothing less than change the world, starting with Europe. Keller has argued for the need to develop proposals that tackle both environmental and social needs, and has said she will continue to push for legally binding and courageous measures on both issues.
During recent campaigning Keller has called for a rapid transition to a green economy as she sees gains to be made from the innovation, sustainable investment and jobs that it would bring. Her ambition is for the EU to become the world leader in transitioning its cities, economies, financial system and infrastructure to sustainable and green alternatives. Unsurprisingly she would like to see the EU and member states completely divest from fossil fuels and massively invest in sustainable transport, renewable energy and resource efficiency.
Given the number of seats that the Greens will win in the election, neither Keller nor Eickhout will be named commission president. We can however envisage the party’s projected seat increase and long-standing fight for action on climate change resulting in a commissioner portfolio for the first time. Whatever happens, the Greens are likely to command more negotiating weight in discussions on top appointments and policy priorities for the next mandate.
- MEP since 2009, active in parliament’s environment, public health and food safety committee
- Former scientific researcher on environmental issues with a degree in chemistry
- Co-author of the 2007 United Nations IPCC report on climate change
No. 27 on Politico magazine’s list of ‘40 MEPs who matter’, Eickhout is in the running to become the chair of one of the European Parliament’s committees in the new term. With the Greens expected to return their best ever European election result (especially in Germany), this may be part of the prize the group will extract for its support in any deal on who gets the top jobs.
Eickhout has been particularly active on parliament’s environment committee in the last term, although he also regularly intervenes through his role as a substitute member of the agriculture committee. In his view, tough policies to fight climate change are required at EU level.
He has specifically stated that his party will only form an pro-EU alliance in the new mandate with the Christian Democrats if they stop supporting ‘illiberal democracies’ in Austria and Hungary.
The Greens have traditionally been critical of EU trade policy (including in talks with the US), because of an alleged lack of environmental guarantees. Eickhout can be expected to continue stress the need to link trade to sustainable development criteria in the new mandate, alongside his calls to phase out coal by 2030.
- Former comedian and artist
- Unique focus on social and environmental policies
Violeta Tomic was re-elected to Slovenia’s national assembly in 2018.
She studied stage acting at the University of Ljubljana and between 1987 and 2002 was an actor at the Ljubljana City Theatre where she also served as a theatre director.
As part of her mandate as Slovenian MP, Tomic is a member of the delegation to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, where she is a representative for the rights of the LGBT community.
With her co-Spitzenkandidat for the far-Left party, Tomic has called for the EU to become autonomous from ‘US hegemony’. She also wants the EU to be an alternative to capitalism, to protect the environment and to respect human rights. In line with her party’s ethos, Tomic has put the fight for social values (such as full employment and the right to professional training, the development of public services and bigger public investment in environmental policy) at the heart of her campaign.
- Spanish-born Belgian national
- Former worker at the FN factory in Liège
- Former general secretary of the FGTB Metalworkers union
Cue has never been elected to office and is running his first political campaign for the GUE/NGL group.
The retired tool-maker spent 13 years as the general secretary of the Belgian trade union FGBT Metalworkers, during which he fought for an activist-led model of trade unionism and sought to build links with wider social movements, particularly when faced with the fallout of the financial crisis.
As a member of the GUE/NGL group, his platform is focused on wealth redistribution and environmental sustainability, but also the preservation of industrial jobs. In the Spitzenkandidaten debate, Cue underlined his opposition to the conclusion of free trade agreements without direct involvement of civil society and investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanisms. An opponent of globalisation, he advocates for increased levels of European investment in the industrial sector in order to prevent relocalisations and to create ‘new Galileo’s and Airbuses’. His other priorities include the creation of a European minimum wage, the abolition of zero-hours-contracts and the reform of pension systems.