It’s the ultimate jobs fair: on Saturday the European Union will pick a new president and foreign policy chief. It just won’t give them any genuine power.
Debate over the successors to Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy as president and Britain’s Catherine Ashton as chief diplomat has focused less on what the EU — beset by an economic malaise and turmoil on its borders — wants to accomplish than on the 28-nation bloc’s knotty internal politics.
Eastern Europeans figure that, after 10 years in the EU, they deserve a top slot; the Socialists reckon that, with a Conservative heading the European Commission (more about that later), the next plum ought to be theirs; and the shortage of women on offer has sparked Europe-wide regret, most vocally by national leaders who have sent up mostly male candidates.
“The people of Europe will see this as a kind of game, but they’re looking for action on weightier issues: creating growth in the economy, creating jobs, dealing with the insecurity that people feel in central and eastern Europe,” David O’Leary, who heads Burson-Marsteller’s “Europe Decides” website in Brussels, said by phone.
The uncomfortable secret is that, in a rules-based system that makes big decisions by consensus — as in the euro crisis or sanctions against Russia over Ukraine — the people who run the EU institutions in Brussels have less clout than those who run national governments.
Similar to the guessing game over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 plans, candidates for top EU posts rarely declare themselves as such. Tradition has it that anyone who stumps too openly for a job is unlikely to get it.
The stealth campaign for the presidency pits Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, 47, against two former premiers of Baltic states, Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis, 43, and Estonia’s Andrus Ansip, 57. Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, 57, got a quasi-endorsement from the British government this week. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, 63, looms as an also-eligible.
Policy objectives matter less than which corner of Europe you come from, your country’s size, your party affiliation, gender and a hazily understood principle of equitable rotation. As the homeland of the EU’s first president, for example, Belgium is unlikely to provide the second.
“You might find it hard to balance all the things that people would like to balance: between left/right, north/south, east/west, in the euro/outside the euro, male/female, fat/thin tall/short — you can’t do all of it,” said Richard Corbett, a former Van Rompuy adviser who is now in the European Parliament.
The bloc’s first full-time president, Van Rompuy made a virtue out of the job’s built-in limitations. Lacking the powers over appointments, budgets, treaties or war that mark out modern-day executives, the Belgian political fixer delivered a masterclass in behind-the-scenes stage management.
Van Rompuy brokered the high-level compromises that kept the euro intact, shaping economic policy in Germany’s fiscally disciplined image while later engineering a tiny shift back toward growth promotion once unemployment became entrenched in southern Europe.
“Learning from Herman” is a must, wrote Agata Gostynska, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London, in an Aug. 21 commentary. She praised Van Rompuy as an economically moderate consensus builder with a “small ego” who didn’t steal national leaders’ limelight.
One post filled over the summer was that of president of the commission, which plays the roles of civil service, economic watchdog and trade authority. It will be Jean-Claude Juncker, who as Luxembourg’s prime minister for almost 19 years is the longest-serving national leader in EU history.
Juncker’s selection over the opposition of Britain and Hungary was the most divisive ever, breaking with the EU custom of unanimity on personnel decisions. With U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron grumbling about a raw deal, EU leaders decided to revert to consensus for Saturday’s appointments.
Juncker’s difficulty in persuading national leaders to populate his commission with women — only four nominees so far are female — poses an additional problem. A threat by the EU Parliament to veto an insufficiently feminine commission gives women an edge in the jobs jamboree.
One beneficiary may be Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, 41, who tops the foreign policy shortlist. She was left dangling at a first, failed, appointments summit last month; some eastern leaders muttered that she would be too soft on Russia and that, with only six months in office, she is short on experience.
Poland has trotted out a rival nominee, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, 51, possibly with the sole goal of knocking out Mogherini. In fine EU tradition, that might open the way for a compromise candidate such as Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, 61, with five years under her belt as EU humanitarian aid commissioner.
“The EU ritual of choosing top leaders is a process of the lowest common denominator,” said Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels. “Top contenders are people who are bland, won’t upset any member state and have no enemies.”