How are the EU’s top jobs chosen?

On Sunday (30 June), the European Council will meet again to try and agree who to nominate for the EU’s top jobs. This Insight sets out what these top jobs are and how they are filled.

The European Commission President

The Treaty on European Union requires the European Council to propose a candidate for President of the European Commission, acting by a qualified majority. In doing so it should take into account the results of the European Parliament elections.  The candidate must then be ‘elected’ by the European Parliament (EP) by an absolute majority of MEPs.  The European Council needs to consult the EP in deciding on its candidate, and the two institutions are supposed to work together to ensure the process works smoothly.

The President of the European Council

The term of office of next President of the European Council will begin on 1 December 2019. This position is elected by the European Council by a qualified majority for a two-and-a-half year term, renewable once. This position has been held by Donald Tusk since 1 December 2014.

The President of the European Parliament

The newly elected EP will elect its own President. It sits for the first time on 2 July, and the vote is scheduled for the next day. If after three ballots no candidate has an absolute majority, there is a run-off between the top two candidates.

The High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

The High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is also appointed by the European Council by a qualified majority, with the agreement of the Commission President-designate. The High Representative is also a Vice-President of the European Commission. The Commission as a whole needs to be approved by the EP before taking office on 1 November.

The President of the European Central Bank

The President of the European Central Bank (ECB) is appointed by the European Council by a qualified majority. The term of office of the ECB President is eight years and non-renewable. The term of the next President will also begin on 1 November. There are differing views as whether this post should be included in the package being discussed.

What has happened so far?

The European Council met on 28 May in order to discuss nominations for appointments to the top jobs. Following the meeting Donald Tusk stressed the need for geographic, gender and political balance in deciding who gets the top jobs. He also said that his aspiration would be to have “at least two women” in these jobs. Currently one of these jobs is occupied by a woman – High Representative Federica Mogherini.

Consultations have been ongoing involving Mr Tusk, EU heads of government and the EP Political Groups since the end of May. So far no agreement has been reached either within the European Council or between the European Council and European Parliament. A shift in the balance between Political Groups in the EP has also made reaching an agreement more difficult.

The two leading groups within the EP, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Socialist & Democrats (S&D) both lost seats in the EP elections and need to work with other Political Groups to reach a consensus. This could lead to an agreement whereby a candidate from one Group is supported to be Commission President and one from another group is supported for EP President.

Talks between the groups have however been complicated by the issue of whether the Spitzenkandidaten process  – adopted for the first time in 2014 – should be followed again.  

What is the Spitzenkandidaten process?

In 2014 the Political Groups adopted the Spitzenkandidaten process. Under this procedure, Political Groups nominated lead candidates for the role of Commission President. In 2014, the lead candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP) was former Luxembourg Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker. The EPP secured the largest number of seats in the 2014 EP elections. Under the Spitzenkandidaten process Mr Juncker was duly nominated by the European Council and then elected by the EP.

However, the Spitzenkandidaten process is not an obligation under the TEU and some EU leaders have expressed opposition to following it again.

The EPP won the most seats again at the 2019 election. Its Spitzenkandidat this time is German MEP Manfred Weber. While EU leaders from the EPP, including German Chancellor Merkel, have backed Mr Weber, others have spoken against his candidacy. Mr Weber’s lack of government experience is one factor standing against him. Unlike previous Commission Presidents (the last four were former Prime Ministers) Mr Weber has not served as a Government Minister.

Resolutions in the EP have stressed that the European Council should propose a Spitzenkandidat for the Commission post. This might not necessarily be the Spitzenkandidat of the leading Political Group. Other leading Political Groups in the EP have said they will not support Mr Weber.

The Spitzenkandidaten of the next biggest Group, the Socialist & Democrats (S&D) is Frans Timmermans. He is currently First Vice-President of the European Commission. The third largest Group, Renew Europe (previously the ALDE Group), did not have a Spitzenkandidat at the elections. Instead it put forward a pool of candidates for the top jobs. These include European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager who has been touted as the most likely candidate from this Group.

Following the European Council meeting of 20 June, French President Emmanuel Macron said the three main Spitzenkandidaten (Weber, Timmermans and Vestager) had been “taken out” of contention. Donald Tusk was more circumspect in stating that there was “no majority on any candidate”.

Several other names have been mentioned as possible candidates to be European Commission President, including the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and various current and former EU heads of government.

When might a European Commission President be elected?

If a candidate is agreed by the European Council, the election of the European Commission President could take place during the European Parliament session on 15-18 July. If the candidate does not get majority support in the EP, the European Council will need to propose another candidate within a month.

Further reading

Political Group formation in the European Parliament, House of Commons Library.

European Parliament elections 2019: results and analysis, House of Commons Library.

Stefano Fella is a senior researcher in international affairs and defence at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit.

Photo: European Commission by Stuart Chalmers. Licenced under CC BY-NC 2.0 / image cropped.

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