July 02, 2019
How not to choose
The reason why we have been so reluctant to draw up potential lists for the five top jobs was the realisation that this task cannot be accomplished without shafting at least somebody. What makes it even more difficult is that this decision is not about the quality of candidates, but about very different political designs of how the EU should operate - with France and Germany at opposite ends in this debate.
There are no solutions that tick all of the boxes. Whatever list of names you draw up, there is always something wrong: not enough women; no eastern Europeans; or a political imbalance - too many liberals, or too few.
The task becomes impossible when you add the following conditions on top: Germany wants a spitzenkandidat as Commission president; France does not want Manfred Weber; Italy does not want Margrethe Vestager, fearing it might get Jens Weidmann at the ECB. And then there are the east Europeans who don’t want Frans Timmermans. And the EPP, which does not want him either. It is unsurprising that the lists kept on rotating back to the starting point. We think journalists and other commentators should realise that they are being played by those who leak lists to them.
In order to get a solution now, the European Council will need to revisit the various self-imposed constraints and agree to outvote somebody. The era of consensus politics is ending. So we can say for sure that one of two things will happen today: someone will lose big, or there will once again be no decision. Angela Merkel was right when she said that they were not even close to a deal yesterday because they would have continued otherwise. And Emmanuel Macron was right on another point: that in the future the system will have to change.
Formally, today’s meeting is the last chance by the European Council to agree its candidate before the European Parliament preempts the process by voting for its own president. If the EP votes for Weber, one of the three spitzenkandidaten is off the table. If they vote for Guy Verhofstadt, things would be very complicated for the European Council. In the Brexit jargon, the parliament will have the opportunity to take Weber off the table - or to put him firmly back on. Or else, Weber might fall between chairs - or tables.
Of the five jobs, there are only two that matter to the outside world and to us: of those the ECB is by far the most important and the least discussed among EU leaders. Having observed the European Council’s persistent and ongoing mismanagement of the eurozone, this lack of interest does not surprise us. Given the continued fragility of the monetary union, it appears downright irresponsible to us for politicians to prioritise spitzenkandidaten, or even a formal women quota. This is on so many levels worse than the futility expressed in the English metaphor of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. There was not much you could do on a sinking ship with insufficient space on life boats. What we are seeing here is a conscious choice not to focus on relevant issues.
The ECB presidency is now on course to be settled as a residual in a political calculation. If you stipulate two of the five candidates are women, and then you pick three men and one woman for the other four jobs, then Christine Lagarde will be the only candidate. At no point have we seen EU leaders even considering the question of what they want from the ECB in the next eight years.
The only turn of events that could still swing it in favour of Weidmann is for Merkel to get shafted on the Commission presidency. If the successful Commission president is none of the three spitzenkandidaten, Merkel may have no choice but to seek a majority in favour of Weidmann. We don’t think the European Council will formally decide that issue today.