Europe’s Hunt for a New CEO Has a Catch: The Winner May Lose

(Bloomberg) -- The race in Europe to pick a new president of the European Commission is heating up, but one big caveat overshadows the entire process: there’s no guarantee the winning contestant will get the post.

The battle reaches a crucial stage on Thursday when Europe’s Christian Democrats select either Manfred Weber of Germany or Alexander Stubb of Finland as their nominee to head the European Union’s executive arm, succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker, who took over the post in 2014.

Europe’s Hunt for a New CEO Has a Catch: The Winner May Lose

Welcome to the EU’s experiment in parliamentary democracy, in which the uncertainty of legislative elections is compounded by doubts about whether national leaders will cede power and play along. At stake is the leadership of the commission, the bloc’s policy engine, after European Parliament elections in May.

“This process is not necessarily a reliable indicator of who will be the next commission president,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. “Pure power politics and national interests will play a big role.”

Europe’s main political families are seeking to replicate national parliamentary democracy by nominating candidates for chief of the Brussels-based commission and letting the parties with the best results in EU legislative elections lay claim to the post. The EU Parliament, which faces a May 23-26 ballot, oversees the commission and approves its leadership team.

While the system was used for the first time in 2014, the verdict is out on whether it’ll survive, especially in an era of insurgent populist forces. It’s dubbed “Spitzenkandidat” after the German term for lead candidate.

“It was and it still is an experiment,” said Emmanouilidis. “This time there are more uncertainties, including whether any Spitzenkandidat will be able to garner majority support in the next EU Parliament.”

Europe’s Hunt for a New CEO Has a Catch: The Winner May Lose

The whole process is non-binding and EU government leaders hold the treaty-based right to propose a person for commission president after “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament.”

With an eye on their own powers, the group of EU heads of government or state has said there will be no automatic link between the Spitzenkandidat experiment and the choice of the next commission chief.

Aside from potentially turning away qualified politicians, this situation has resulted in the pool of people who have thrown their hats in the ring being composed to a large degree of EU insiders. The Socialists are fielding the commission’s principal vice president, Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands, while two of three Green party members in the mix are EU parliamentarians.

In that context, the Christian Democratic nominee who emerges on Thursday after a secret ballot in Helsinki will be a favorite on paper. That’s because the party, the biggest in the EU Parliament with almost 30 percent of the membership, is likely to remain the top faction even if its share of seats falls in the upcoming elections.

Weber, leader of the Christian Democrats in the EU assembly, is likely to come out on top of Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister. That’s because Weber has gained the support of around 20 national parties that belong to the EU political alliance, also known as the European People’s Party.

Europe’s Hunt for a New CEO Has a Catch: The Winner May Lose

Still, for Weber to succeed Juncker atop the commission, EU member-country leaders would have to abandon their longstanding practice of choosing someone from their own ranks for the job. In addition, Germany might have to trade away the chance to put a German national atop one of the other main EU institutions.

In a sign of the stakes, French President Emmanuel Macron has distanced himself from the Spitzenkandidat process and Europe’s Liberal party, to which he is most closely associated, is debating whether to field a team of candidates for various European posts rather than a single nominee for the commission presidency.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.