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Navigating the new European Union's Leadership Transition

The European Union is undergoing a critical transition in its leadership structure, with the recent agreement by European leaders on key positions setting the stage for the next five-year term. This article delves into the detailed process of appointing the EU’s top officials, examining the roles of the European Council and the European Parliament, and exploring the broader implications for EU governance.


European Council


On June 28, the European Council convened a brief yet pivotal meeting where the leaders of the 27 EU member states endorsed the candidates for the Union’s principal executive roles. Ursula von der Leyen has been nominated for a second term as President of the European Commission, António Costa is set to become President of the European Council, and Kaja Kallas has been proposed as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This endorsement marks the initial phase in a multi-step process that will ultimately shape the Union's governance for the coming term.


António Costa's appointment as President of the European Council is conclusive, as his election by the Council is final. He will assume office on December 1, succeeding Charles Michel. Costa’s appointment reflects a continuation of Portugal’s influential role within the EU's institutional framework, given his prior experience and the high regard in which he is held by fellow EU leaders.


The Parliamentary Approval Process


High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy


Kaja Kallas, former Prime Minister of Estonia, must undergo a further approval process by the European Parliament. Scheduled to appear before the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in September 2024, Kallas will need to secure a majority vote from the committee to be confirmed as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Kallas' appointment is particularly significant given the evolving geopolitical landscape and the EU's need for a robust foreign policy strategy.


President of the European Commission


Ursula von der Leyen's reappointment as President of the European Commission is contingent upon approval from the full European Parliament. The vote, set for the plenary session from July 16-19, in Strasbourg, requires von der Leyen to achieve an absolute majority of 361 votes out of 720 MEPs. The secret ballot introduces uncertainty regarding the level of support she will receive, despite the backing of the three largest political groups: the European People's Party (EPP), Socialists & Democrats (S&D), and Renew Europe.


Von der Leyen’s strategy to secure additional support involves engaging with MEPs beyond these core groups. This approach includes lobbying national delegations and individual MEPs to ensure her reappointment. The dynamics within these political groups, along with the secretive nature of the ballot, make predicting the final outcome challenging.


Potential Political Alliances


The Green party, with its 54 MEPs, has signaled a willingness to negotiate, which could prove pivotal in securing von der Leyen’s majority. Green co-president Bas Eickhout has emphasized the need for a broad coalition to establish a stable pro-European majority, suggesting that negotiations might include a fourth party. However, the Greens have firmly ruled out any coalition with Giorgia Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, citing ideological differences.


The Socialists (S&D) have similarly rejected any alliance with far-right factions such as ECR or the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. S&D President Iratxe García has reiterated this position, emphasizing that while the Spitzenkandidat process is respected, unconditional support is not guaranteed.


Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d'Italia MEPs could potentially support von der Leyen, though their exact stance remains uncertain. Meloni’s abstention during the Council meeting, as opposed to outright rejection, may indicate a willingness to be persuaded.


Formation of the European Commission


Should Ursula von der Leyen obtain parliamentary approval, she will initiate the process of forming the new European Commission. While no appointments are yet finalized, several countries have proposed candidates for key positions. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed a desire to reappoint Thierry Breton as French Commissioner. Ireland has nominated Finance Minister Michael McGrath to succeed Commissioner Mairead McGuinness. Lithuania has put forward Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who has received support from EPP leader Manfred Weber.


In 2019, von der Leyen requested member states to nominate both male and female candidates to ensure gender balance within the Commission. However, no country has yet adhered to this request, presenting a challenge to achieving a balanced representation.

The final appointments to the Commission will be made in September 2024, with each nominee requiring approval from the European Parliament to officially take office. This process underscores the importance of securing broad support across the political spectrum to ensure the effective functioning of the EU’s executive branch.


Implications for EU Governance


The leadership transition within the EU reflects broader dynamics of political negotiation and institutional stability. The forthcoming parliamentary votes and the formation of the new European Commission will significantly influence the Union’s policy direction and its response to global challenges. The outcome of these appointments will determine the EU’s strategic priorities, its approach to international relations, and its internal governance over the next five years.


As the process unfolds, the interplay between political negotiations and institutional procedures will be crucial in shaping the future trajectory of the European Union. The outcomes of these appointments will not only impact the immediate leadership but also set the tone for the EU's role on the global stage and its internal cohesion.


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