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EU leaders discuss Commission jobs in post-election summit

June 17, 2024

Leaders met for talks on how key roles in the bloc will be distributed. Charles Michel said they did not reach a final agreement, but incumbent Ursula von der Leyen appears the frontrunner for commission president.

EU flag
EU leaders are to hold talks over dinner in BrusselsImage: Ardan Fuessmann/IMAGO

European Union leaders gathered in Brussels on Monday for an informal meeting focused largely on discussing the choice of people to fill key positions in the bloc.

Three jobs are up for grabs: president of the European Commission, currently held by Ursula von der Leyen; president of the European Council, a position currently held by Charles Michel; and that of foreign policy chief or "high representative," which is at present in the hands of Josep Borrell.

"I am sure we can find an agreement in the shortest possible time," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said as he arrived for the evening talks on Monday. 

The dinner debate on the assignments came against the background of the gains made by the far right in recent European Parliament elections, which have triggered snap elections in key EU member France and caused considerable unease elsewhere in the bloc.

Council President Charles Michel said after Monday's talks that the leaders had not reached a conclusion and that they would do so before the next EU leaders' summit at the end of the month. 

"It was a good conversation. It goes in the right direction, I think. But there is no agreement tonight," said Michel, stressing that the gathering was never intended to yield a final deal but that "it's our collective duty to make a decision by the end of June.

Who is in contention?

Conservative German politician Ursula von der Leyen, 65, is the favorite to retake the job of European Commission president, a position she has already held since 2019 at the head of the executive branch of the EU.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that there seemed to be an "increasing amount of consensus" around the post of commission chief in particular, albeit stressing the final decision had not yet been made.

Von der Leyen's chances have been bolstered by the success of her European People's Party (EPP) in the European elections that took place from June 6 to June 9.

It took just over a quarter of the vote and therefore 190 of 720 seats, more than any other bloc.

She will need support from a "qualified majority" of 15 out of the 27 EU member countries, making up at least 65% of the bloc's population, to clinch the job.

That means she will have to win over German Chancellor Olaf Scholz from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and  French President Emmanuel Macron from the centrist Renew Europe group.

Ursula von der Leyen
Von der Leyen has been European Commission president since 2019Image: EPA/Denis Balibouse

The S&D, which came second in the elections, is hoping that one of its members, 62-year-old former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, will take the Council position, for which he is currently seen as the frontrunner.  

Costa stepped down from his position as Portuguese prime minister amid a corruption probe, but diplomats say the case, which seems to have lost headway, is not likely to prevent him from taking on the position.

Antonio Costa, man talking at microphone
Antonio Costa stepped down as Portuguese prime minister in November last yearImage: Leonardo Negrão/GlobalImagens/IMAGO

The top contender for the job of foreign policy chief is Kaja Kallas, 46, the current premier of Estonia.

Kallas is an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, and choosing her would be a strong sign of solidarity with the EU's east, which feels increasingly threatened by potential Russian aggression amid Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Katja Kallas, woman speaking in front of several microphones
Kaja Kallas has been Estonian premier since 2021Image: Gaetan Claessens/European Union

Other issues on the agenda

The leaders were expected to confirm their choices at an EU summit on June 27-28. Von der Leyen would still then need backing from the European Parliament, which votes in its first session on July 16.

They expected to discuss the bloc's agenda for the next five-year legislative cycle. The focus of their talks is likely to be on common values, defense and economic competitiveness.  

Another prominent job in the EU is that of the European Parliament president, which is not decided by leaders but by the legislature itself.

The EPP's Roberta Metsola, 45, who is already the incumbent, has appeared as the top contender for that job and is likely to be returned for another 2 1/2-year term.

tj/ab (AP, AFP)