Who will replace European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker?

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The Week

The race hots up as former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb throws hat in as an outsider

A former Finnish prime minister has become the second person to formally throw his hat in the ring to lead the European Commission, as Europe approaches a crucial juncture.

Alexander Stubb joins Manfred Weber, the German leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) and largest grouping in the European Parliament, in the race to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker, who will step down after the European Parliament elections next May.

Announcing his candidacy, Stubb said he could “see that core European values are being attacked both from inside and outside” the European Union; a thinly veiled reference to recent political developments in member states Hungary, Italy and Poland as well as attempts by China, Russia and the United States to undermine the bloc.

Stubb, a multi-lingual Ironman triathlete, is looking to present himself as the underdog, who will offer a fresh voice in Brussels and upend the dissatisfaction that has led to big gains for nationalists, populists and the far-right across the continent in recent years.

By contrast, Weber is seen as the continuity candidate supported by the Establishment.

“[He] is hardly an electrifying character, and has no executive experience in government,” says Politico, “but he has the tentative backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel and – more importantly – the inside track on drumming up internal EPP support in a contest that will be decided not by popular acclaim but in a secret ballot at a party conference in early November.”

Weber will also be boosted by reports that Merkel is preparing to drop Germany’s bid for the top job at the European Central Bank and pursue the presidency of the European Commission instead, although it is believed her preferred candidate is her own her economy minister and former chief-of-staff, Peter Altmaier.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is also rumoured to covet the job, with his two-year audition resting heavily on the final deal he is able to strike with the UK.

The process for electing the European Commission president is famously convoluted and opaque. “Under the Spitzenkandidat system backed by the Parliament, parties choose a lead candidate for the election and one of those – normally the candidate of the party that comes first – should become the next Commission president. However, the leaders of the EU’s member countries have made clear they will not be bound by this process and reserve the right to choose their own candidate to lead the Commission,” explains Politico.

Outside of the EPP grouping, other potential candidates include Austria’s former chancellor Christian Kern, former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and current Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

There are also a number of candidates from within the EU itself: namely Margrethe Vestager who has won admiration for her crackdown on corporate tax avoidance; Guy Verhofstadt who currently leads the EU parliament and EU finance commissioner Pierre Moscovici.

Federica Mogherini, who was catapulted into the high-ranked commission post of EU foreign policy chief in 2014, “could benefit from efforts to promote female candidates and a better left-right balance in Brussels but may struggle to get the necessary support from the new populist coalition in Rome”, says Voice of America.

With a new batch of MEPs, a new president of the European Council and European Central Bank, as well as new commissioners due to take up their posts next year, the new president faces an uphill struggle to reshape the bloc over their next five-year term.

With the EU politically unbalanced, Britain heading out the door, growth faltering, Italy in the grip of populists, and Hungary and Poland ruled by nationalist hardliners, the new leadership team “has no easy task ahead of them”, says Denis MacShane in The Independent.

 

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