Claiming a rightful place at the table - Central and Eastern Europe’s prospects for an EU top job after 2024
In the wake of the 2019 European Elections, Central and Eastern Europe was left with none of the high-level jobs in the European Institutions. The developments in Europe ever since have placed the region at the heart of the major challenges impacting the EU. This policy brief looks forward to the 2024 European Election and examines how CEE countries should approach the horse-trading that will follow those elections to make sure that the CEE region is better represented at the highest levels of the European institutions. It does so by looking at how appointment cycles in the past developed and by offering an initial glance at the prospects for 2024. It concludes by making some concrete recommendations.
CEE’s Long march towards a top job
We are now close to one year out from the next European Election and the corresponding shuffle of high-level EU jobs. Accordingly, Brussels is already rife with speculation about who will seek these much sought-after positions. Sanna Marin’s resignation as leader of the Finnish Socialist party has ignited speculations about her making a bid for the top job of Commission President as a possible Spitzenkandidat for the European socialists. Alongside this there is also NATO looking for its next Secretary-General, as a replacement for Jens Stoltenberg. The organisation is however having serious difficulties finding a suitable successor, and it is looking to avoid delaying this so this appointment wouldn’t be part of the wider appointment cycle within the European Institutions following the 2024 election.
Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) hasn’t been able to secure one of the top jobs within the European Union the past election cycle; instead it was left only with Valdis ombrovkis’ Executive vice presidency. The offices of Commission President, High Representative, the President of the European Parliament have however all been dominated by appointments from Western Europe. Donald Tusk’s five years as President of the European Council is the most notable CEE appointment, but he remains an exception to the rule, highlighting an obvious underrepresentation of CEE countries. This lack of a high-profile representative has been made all the more pertinent following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the leadership CEE countries have shown in mobilizing more reluctant Western and Southern European countries to support Ukraine the past year, as Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas has also remarked upon.
The increased punch of the region on foreign policy related subjects, most notably related to Ukraine, can help in addressing this. CEE countries will however also need to step up on other topics for European politics such as energy, the green transition and they will at the same time need to address valid Western grievances on rule-of-law and judicial independence issues.
How are the High Offices appointed in the EU?
The appointment of the College of European Commissioners is usually seen as a ‘package deal’ wherein the member states are the primary actors deciding who gets nominated for the wide range of jobs up for grabs after European Elections. The European Council thus decides on the nomination of candidates and it makes sure there is a party political, gender and geographical balance.
The European Parliament and the European political party families have, however, been of increasing importance for this appointment cycle ever since it got a formal role herein following the implementation of the Lisbon treaty in 2009. Any appointments for commission roles need to be approved by parliament, meaning that only the president of the European Council can be solely selected by the heads of state. The increasing fragmentation of the European Parliament has made approval of Von Der Leyen as commission president the closest ever, only passing with a mere 9 votes to spare. Polls predict an even more fragmented parliament after 2024 and a further weakening of the parties who were the main backers of Von Der Leyen. It’s therefore key that CEE political actors within the European Parliament are aware of the importance of their votes and that they use this in promoting CEE candidates for high-level offices.
At the same time it’s important to stress that previous successful candidates for high-level appointments had the required background, experience and political weight behind their candidacies. Candidates must be representative of not just the CEE region but must have opinions on important policy topics that are acceptable for the whole EU.
On top of this there is an expected seniority that candidates need, former heads of state or ministers are usually the only viable candidates for important portfolios in the commission. Political newcomers or people without actual experience in government are usually not taken into consideration and are given less important roles. The unwritten rule is that the European Council selects people from its own ranks for the highest offices, a principle that has been in place since the Santer Commission of 1995. A telling example of this selection bias was the case of Manfred Weber, who was designated Spitzenkandidat during the 2019 election, but lacked any experience in government and was thus rejected by the European Council. Inversely, the current senior commissioners in the Von Der Leyen commission, that is the (executive) vice-presidents, were previously present in the Juncker-commission or were leading members of the different political groups in the European Parliament. Timmermans and Vestager were both Spitzenkandidaten for respectively the socialist and liberal groupings.
The future of the Spitzenkandidaten system looks unclear for after the 2024 elections. After the 2019 appointment rollercoaster, the system was declared ‘dead’, but the parliament hasn’t completely written it off either. Whilst Von Der Leyen hasn’t announced her intentions for 2024 yet, the expectation is that she will seek a second term. The German coalition agreement postulates a choice for commissioner for the German greens in 2024 in case the commission president isn’t already from Germany, implying support for a second Von Der Leyen term. The Spitzenkandidaten system could therefore get a second lease on life, with the first time that an incumbent president would defend their seat of commission president against other candidates.
An early glance at the 2024 Elections
Looking more concretely at the 2024 elections, the most realistic goal for CEE countries presenting itself for the 2024 appointment round would be a bid for the office of high representative for Common foreign and security policy, better known as the HR/VP. The war in Ukraine will remain one of the most pressing policy challenges for the EU in the run up to the 2024 election, and CEE countries such as Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic or the Baltics have a strong track record on this topic. Another topic of huge importance for EU foreign policy is how Europe should engage China and the growing threat of conflict over Taiwan. CEE countries have been strong proponents of a more forceful EU posture vis-à-vis China and countries such as Lithuania have been remarkably more engaged with Taiwan than most West-European countries. It’s therefore clear that CEE countries have taken up an important space in the way the European Union sees its future foreign policy in an age of renewed great-power rivalry.
Nevertheless, issues remain on other topics: CEE countries have no history of engagement with the global south, and the EU-Africa agenda remains driven by a select few Western- and North-European states. Climate change and the European Green Deal are another aspect of growing importance for European foreign policy in recent years, but this has been mostly under the leadership of the European Commission and CEE countries have been reticent in this field.
This leaves out the most onerous problem hanging over a possible CEE HR/VP bid: the remaining rule-of-law issues in Poland and Hungary. This is an issue that will remain a thorn in the side of any candidate these 2 particular countries would field, and it is highly uncertain whether there is appetite in other EU capitals to consider a Polish or Hungarian bid for a top job as long as these issues remain unaddressed.
In the year that remains, CEE countries thus have their work cut for for them. They must continue leading the EU in engagement with Ukraine and Russia, but they must also become more involved in a broader range of topics of importance to EU foreign policy.
CEE countries should also keep an eye on the political process within the ‘Brussels Bubble’. The upcoming round of appointments is looking to be one of the most difficult ever and polling suggests a further fragmentation of the parliament. In 2014 the European Christian-democrat and Socialist groups could form a ‘grand coalition’ amongst themselves to grant approval to the Juncker commission. In 2019 the liberal fraction was needed to reinforce the 2014 coalition, placing Emmanuel Macron into the position of kingmaker. Macron subsequently pulled in some important positions for his liberal group such as that of Council President and President of the European Central bank, even though the liberals were by size a distant third in the European Parliament. As of now it is uncertain what the constellation in 2024 will be, but polling predicts that the group of European Conservatives & Reformists could be in the position of kingmaker, as the group includes Poland’s PiS and the Italian Fratelli D’Italia of Giorgia Meloni. At the same time, CEE countries will be represented in the other three big political fractions as well and will thus be in a position to make demands. But coordinating amongst CEE countries is not a given and this will neither be something easy.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Even though it is impossible to predict the outcome of the appointment round after a European election, there are certain underlying assumptions from previous rounds that will certainly be of importance for after the 2024 European elections. The EU has changed dramatically since the appointment of the Von Der Leyen commission, the war in Ukraine has put the CEE region at the heart of the changes impacting our continent and its therefore imperative that the CEE region be better represented at the highest levels of decision-making to reflect the changing times.
The following are recommendations to increase the likelihood of such an appointment:
- Pay attention to the Parliament and the European political party families: whilst the European council remains the most important institution for appointments, Parliament plays a decisive role in the confirmation process. Engaging with it is thus key.
- Candidate quality. Top Jobs only go to top candidates: experience in high-level governance is an unwritten requirement, and CEE countries must take the preselection process serious.
- Balancing act & Package deals. The horse-trading over appointments is always a package deal where ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. CEE countries must strike the right balance wherein they consign their approval in return for other concessions. Cooperation between CEE countries on this is also of key importance.
Vice President and Head of GLOBSEC Brussels
Master Student in International Affairs at the University of Leuven and a Trainee at GLOBSEC Brussels