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Are Europe’s new leaders up to the job? Brussels appointment process raises serious legitimacy questions

Ursula von der Leyen: still under investigation in Germany. EPA

Every six years, in tandem with the European parliamentary election, the EU changes the management of its top jobs. This, in turn, affects the composition of its institutions. The five key places to be filled are the European Commission president, the European Council president, the president of the European Parliament, the head of the European Central Bank, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

EU treaties, plus political expediency, help ensure balance in terms of geography, large vs. small states, party affiliation and gender in filling posts. But this time around, the process of post selection has been disappointingly unclear, and lacked democratic legitimacy. Nor have the results been remotely representative of the EU as a whole.

Initially, the selection method of the top job, the European Commission president, looked relatively well managed. The last couple of months saw the preferred “spitzencandidates” (and a few others, like Michel Barnier) representing the larger party groupings of the European Parliament trotting around Europe attending hustings to outline their European visions in the hope of being elected to the post.

Heads of EU member states, meanwhile, had numerous intergovernmental summits, discussing known runners and unknown riders. All of this is par for the course. Taken together, the “electoral package” yields names that have been discussed across Europe for weeks, if not months.

In the end,, however, EU leaders discarded all the key candidates for the Commission and other top jobs. They have instead opted for a hastily-assembled line up of entirely new individuals in a backroom deal. The quick fix may have assuaged national interests and helped beat the clock in terms of getting folks into position, but it could yield serious problems.

There are questions about how suitable some of these people are for the roles they’ve been awarded. Any yet they are taking office at a time when Brussels needs the very best.

The new team

After five weeks of wrangling and a gruelling five-day summit, the EU conclave’s white smoke finally arose over Charles Michel (Belgium) as EU Council president and Ursula von der Leyen (Germany) as EU Commission president. Josep Borrell (Spain) will be the new representative for foreign affairs and Christine Lagarde (France) the European Central Bank’s (ECB) new chief. David-Maria Sassoli (Italy) will take over as the European Parliament’s president.

David-Maria Sassoli, and Italian MEP from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, has been chosen to become president of the European Parliament. EPA

However, the ink on the press release was hardly dry before the storm clouds had gathered. Serious questions have arisen over at least three of the five nominees.

As EU foreign affairs nominee, Borrell’s diplomatic skills may, for example, come severely unstuck in negotiating upcoming EU talks between Serbia and Kosovo. That’s because Spain itself – skittish over restive Catalonia – still refuses to recognise Kosovo as a nation.

Lagarde is less problematic. While not ostensibly an economist and with little recent monetary or central bank experience, Lagarde has earned her financial credentials running the International Monetary Fund in impressive fashion for the past eight years, and is a sensible successor to Mario Draghi.

The real trouble is the scandal-ridden von der Leyen. Long a favourite of German chancellor Angela Merkel, the current German minister of defence remains the subject of an ongoing investigation into mismanagement and misspending. She has serious questions to answer, from her reclusive and defensive management style, to ethical issues regarding third party suppliers. She is accused of having a poor grasp of details and has conspicuously failed to use her past five years as minister to make improvements to Germany’s beleaguered armed forces, procurement and defence development.

Michel, the liberal Belgian prime minister, enjoys a credible reputation for coalition building, policy construction and inclusive approaches, all of which will be sorely needed in the new EU Council.

The final shocker was the European Parliament president. Here, surely, an eastern candidate like Bulgarian prime minister Sergei Stanishev could have been installed as the final attempt to institute east-west, large-small balance. Instead, incumbent Antonio Tajani will be replaced by a fellow countryman and former journalist in Sassoli.

Fit for purpose?

Lagarde and von der Leyen together represent at EU level what French president Emmanuel Macron and Merkel have striven to maintain at inter-governmental level: a viable Franco-German partnership fit for the 21st century. But such preponderance comes at a cost: the overwhelming Western European dominance in all five posts.

These new leaders have possibly the most challenging tenure since the mid 2000s. They need to reduce the potential for upheaval by dealing with Brexit and the ongoing turbulence of the financial crisis (even now, the ECB is mulling over further quantitative easing). They must manage the EU’s punitive trade policy with both China and the US in addition to pugilistic trans-Atlantic relations, as well as longstanding commitments to dealing humanely with migration and climate change.

To this, they need to add one more: European democracy. The European Parliament election outcome implied that EU citizens are getting fed up with the unclear way in which Brussels operates, and the lengths to which some individuals and institutions go to keep things unclear. The new leaders, committees and policies themselves need to move swiftly to acknowledge that poor procedures open the door to mistrust, cynicism and apathy. The EU can, and must, do better.

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