Who are the dark horses for the European Commission Presidency?

As Europeans head to the polls, we turn our attention to the possible outcome of next week’s European Council summit, where EU government leaders will begin the process of choosing the next Commission President.

How will they decide?

The Council is required to take into account the results of the election when choosing a candidate, but is not bound by the EU treaties to follow the Parliament’s proposals. The Parliament has sought to assert itself in the appointment process by developing the Spitzenkandidat system, and has suggested that it may reject any potential Commission President that has not campaigned as a Spitzenkandidat.

However, despite technically being the frontrunner, the EPP’s Manfred Weber is not certain to be nominated by the Council – his lack of executive experience and the unwillingness of several EU Governments to follow the Spitzenkandidat process both count against him. Crucially, the EPP is also unlikely to be able to align its potential coalition partners, whether the S&D, ALDE or Greens, behind Weber.

We can reasonably expect therefore that the Council will look elsewhere for their candidate, and look below at some of the outliers who could take over the top floor of the Berlaymont.

Michel Barnier – EPP

The new Commission President is likely to come from the EPP, which is still projected to be the biggest group in the Parliament by a small margin following the election. Barnier came close to the Commission presidency in 2014, when he was beaten in the EPP primary by Jean-Claude Juncker. He has served at both national and Commission level since the mid-90s, and is well-respected across the EU27 for the way he has conducted the Brexit negotiations. With cross-party support in the EP, he would be broadly acceptable as a compromise candidate. He has been careful to avoid describing himself as a candidate but has been campaigning in all but name in recent months, meeting regularly with national leaders and making speeches setting out his vision for the EU’s future.

António Costa – S&D

During the main Spitzenkandidaten debate, Frans Timmermans made an open call for a left/liberal alliance to defeat the EPP’s current majority. If the Socialists, Liberals and Greens cannot unite behind the S&D’s Frans Timmermans, the current Prime Minister of Portugual has been suggested by some as a surprise candidate – but has recently told journalists that he does not plan to take a job in Brussels.

Kristalina Georgieva – EPP

Former Commission Vice-President and current World Bank CEO Georgieva is a strong contender. Although like Weber, she has not held executive office in her home Member State, she was well-respected during the six years she spent in the Commission. There is an expectation that one of the EU presidencies will be held by a woman, and as one of the few outlying candidates from Eastern Europe, her appointment would address the previous lack of diversity in the EU’s top jobs.

Christine Lagarde – EPP

Despite telling journalists that she is not interested in a job in Europe, the Managing Director of the IMF is regularly tipped as a potential candidate for either the Commission or Council Presidency. She has not served in either the European Parliament or Commission, but held three ministerial positions in France before her appointment to the IMF.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt – S&D

Thorning-Schmidt, former Danish Prime Minister, is regularly discussed in Brussels circles as a possible contender for one of the EU’s top jobs. She lost out to Donald Tusk for the Council presidency in 2014, and while she has been reluctant to openly share her European ambitions, she has the credentials to lead either the Commission or Council. Her party is expected to perform well at the Danish national elections in June, which could give her the edge over her liberal rival Margrethe Vestager for a Commissioner post.

Mark Rutte – ALDE

ALDE has long been kingmaker in the European Parliament, and a strong showing in the elections will bolster this position. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has told journalists that he does not intend to go to Brussels, but he has been tipped as a potential compromise liberal candidate, if Margrethe Vestager is unsuccessful in her bid.

Margrethe Vestager - ALDE

ALDE did not nominate a single Spitzenkandidat, proposing instead a slate of seven candidates for the EU’s top jobs, but Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager is considered their main contender for the role of Commission President. During her tenure Vestager has taken on some of the world’s largest companies and is known for her tough stance on tax avoidance, mergers and anti-trust cases. She is well-respected and would be a popular choice in Brussels circles, but her party currently sits in opposition in Denmark, making it less likely for her government to support her nomination.

When will we know?

Council President Donald Tusk called a summit of EU government leaders for 28 May, just two days after polls close. While it is unlikely that the EU28 will agree on a candidate during that first session – Jean-Claude Juncker was not nominated until a month after the elections in 2014 – a small number of frontrunners are likely to emerge. The Council may also use the summit to set out its process for nominating its candidate, in a bid to reassert its power over the European Parliament. If the timeline is similar to 2014, we can expect to see the new President elected by the European Parliament in July and take office on 1 November.