There will be a major ‘Changing of the Guards’ next year with the departures of Juncker, Tusk and Draghi – each of them remarkable in their own way – from the leadership team of the European Union. The incoming team will be facing a Europe that poses unprecedented challenges. Commissioner Oettinger went as far as characterizing Europe as facing ‘mortal danger’ from both within and without. I don’t exactly share the doomsday predictions as regards the Union, but the international and internal challenges are truly immense and require leadership commensurate with such.
Here is my Dream Team to lead the Union in the face of these challenges:
President of the Commission: Frans Timmermans
President of the Council: Angela Merkel
President of the European Central Bank: Christine Lagarde
At this point many readers might be chortling. Not because they necessarily disagree that this would be a formidable team to face off the likes of Trump and Putin, Salvini and Orbán. Or to face the truly daunting socio-economic challenges of the Union. But rather because it seems to defy any realistic vision of the European politics of appointments. Does it really? Suspend your disbelief for just a while.
The Spitzenkandidaten process is already underway. And despite grumblings from here and there (notably Macron, who has no powerful presence in the internal organization of political groups in the European Parliament) the process is unlikely to be derailed. It will be in most likelihood Parliament that will decide from among the various Spitzenkandidaten who will be the next President of the Commission. Parliament will not allow otherwise, lest its already tenuous standing be in tatters.
Timmermans, it seems, may well end up as the candidate of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (SD). But it is unlikely that the SD will emerge as the largest parliamentary group in May 2019. It is still likely to be the European People’s Party (EPP). So how could Timmermans emerge from the Spitzenkandidaten exercise as President if the EPP is the ‘winner’ of the elections?
Well, much of Europe is habituated to coalition politics – and eventual Prime Ministers are not necessarily those whose parties are the largest but those who can build a coalition and command a majority in Parliament. If the SD can coalesce with the Liberals (ALDE) they almost certainly would command a majority in the EP, and if they agreed to put forward Timmermans as their joint candidate there would be nothing undemocratic or violative of the Spitzenkandidaten process if he were elected.
I am aware that Mr Rutte has ambitions of his own and might end up as the candidate of ALDE. But it would certainly be more than odd if the candidate of neither of the two largest parties in Parliament ended up as President of the Commission. So, why would the Liberals be interested in such an arrangement? I might say ‘for the good of Europe’ but then your chortle would turn into dismissive laughter. But what if he were offered the position of High Representative? Not without difficulty. Two Dutchmen in key positions? But then, right now there are two Italians in key positions (Draghi and Mogherini). Difficult but not impossible.
What about Merkel? She has announced her intention of soldiering on as Chancellor, even having resigned from leadership of her party. No one believes this is viable. Even if the German coalition does not fall apart (a big if), would the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) want to give up the option of going into the next elections with a candidate who has had the huge public exposure of serving for some time as Chancellor? And would they not want to distance themselves somewhat from Merkel?
Would Merkel be interested in moving to Europe, the obligatory protestation of retiring from politics notwithstanding? I think she would. First, she would understand the importance of having a German Christian Democrat in a key position, and if it is not to be Weber, why not her? Could there be a more noble and glorious way to end her historic chancellorship than by moving to become the President of the Council? If the offer were made in the wake of the EP elections in May 2019 I expect that she would hum and haw but then ‘for the good of Europe’ accept.
But in this case, it is not the EP but the other Member States who would have to come on board. The key here would be Macron and France. But if he is serious about his ambitious reform plan for Europe, he too could not dream of a better partner (not hemmed by internal German politics) than Merkel as President of the Council, with her authority and gravitas. And if Lagarde, who would not be the darling of the French Left, but would be perceived by most as entirely compatible with Macron’s world view, were to be part of the package, it is not impossible that he would throw his weight behind Merkel. ‘For the good of Europe’, of course.
A partnership of Timmermans and Merkel would be even greater than the sum of its parts. There is no European politician who enjoys greater respect around the world and thus the President of the Council could emerge, as was once predicted, Ms Europe for the rest of the World (apart from chairing the Council). And Timmermans, as President of the Commission, with his vast experience and charisma, could focus more intensively on the internal agenda.
What of the other Member States? A German at the helm? Not everyone’s cup of tea. But Merkel is Merkel, and the esteem with which she is held even by her adversaries might just be sufficient to get the necessary support. Her migrant policy which got her into such deep trouble in Germany would actually put her in good stead among the European Centre Left, and there are few European politicians who are perceived to have sufficient gravitas to stand up to the Trumps of the world.
A Socialist as President of the Commission, a Christian Democrat as President of the Council, a Liberal as High Representative (I am not sure to which political family I would plug Lagarde – and maybe that is a good thing for someone who is to take over at the ECB). Dutch, German, French nationalities, two women two men, but most important of all, four politicians with huge experience and ability and all committed Europeans and democrats. My dream team.