Making social science accessible

04 Jun 2019


The initial weeks and months following the European Parliament elections are always a crucial period for the EU. The end of one parliament marks the end of a legislative phase after which the leading positions in the EU’s main institutions require renewal.

What are they?

The EU’s ‘top jobs’ are the heads of the EU’s key institutions, which periodically come up for election and appointment. The occupants of these roles will, to a large extent, determine the legislative programme of the EU over the next five years. There five main positions up for grabs are:

  1. the president of the European Commission, to replace Jean-Claude Juncker
  2. the president of the European Council of EU heads of state and government, to replace Donald Tusk
  3. the president of the European Parliament, replacing Antonio Tajani
  4. the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), replacing Mario Draghi (this vacancy is a coincidence this year due to the end of the postholder’s mandate, which is eight years)
  5. the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, replacing Federica Mogherini

How does it work?

There are different processes to elect each position, set out in the EU’s treaties. Some are decided by individual institutions while others are determined collaboratively.

1. The president of the European Commission

The decision on who becomes the head of the Commission is made jointly, by the European Council and the European Parliament. The European Council proposes a candidate to the Parliament, taking into account the results of the European elections and having achieved at least the agreement of a ‘reinforced qualified majority’ of member states.

This means that no individual country can veto this decision. Thereafter, the Parliament holds a hearing with the candidate, who presents their political guidelines—a kind of manifesto for their presidency—to members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

The nominee needs the support of the majority of MEPs. The deeply political nature of this decision is underlined by the terminology used in the treaty which indicates that the European Parliament ‘elects’ the Commission President.

If s/he has this support, the President-elect then enters discussions with the governments of the member states, each of which proposes one or more candidates for commissioner posts, to determine the distribution of different policy portfolios.

The adoption of the full list of commissioners requires the support of both the European Council and the President-elect of the Commission. These individuals collectively form the College of Commissioners—the Commission equivalent of a Cabinet. The College is made up of one commissioner from each member state, each with a different policy area of responsibility, such as trade, environment or agriculture.

However, if the European Parliament rejects a candidate for Commission president, the European Council must propose a different candidate who can command majority support in the Parliament. This process continues until a candidate is found who is acceptable to MEPs. Each proposed member of the full College of Commissioners must also face a public, and often quite demanding, hearing before the MEPs of the corresponding committee of the European Parliament and be approved (something that is not always given), along with the president, by a simple majority of votes cast in the Parliament.

2. The president of the European Council

Unlike the Commission presidency, the president of the European Council is elected solely by its members—the heads of state and government of the member states—and is thus a much more straightforward procedure. This is done by a qualified majority of members, meaning the support of at least 21 member states (20 without the UK) representing at least 65% of the EU population is needed for this appointment.

In reality, national leaders meeting in the European Council tend to seek a consensual decision without the need for a formal vote. Once elected, presidents serve a two-and-a-half year term. This can be renewed only once, meaning European Council presidents can only serve a maximum of five years.

3. The president of the European Parliament

Similar to the European Council, the European Parliament elects its own president without the involvement of the other EU institutions. Each political grouping is able to propose a candidate for the presidency, although groupings often agree on a candidate in advance. Once the nominations have been made, several rounds of voting can take place. A candidate needs to receive an absolute majority of votes in the first round in order to be elected.

If none does so, a further two rounds of voting take place. If none still fails to win an absolute majority, a fourth round of voting is held between the two candidates with the highest number of votes from the third round. A simple majority of votes cast is needed to win. If there is a tie, the older candidate is elected. Again, mirroring the European Council, presidents of the European Parliament serve for two-and-a-half years, meaning there is a ‘mid-term’ election halfway through the Parliament to renew the post.

4. The president of the European Central Bank

In comparison to the other roles, which are explicitly political, the president of the ECB is a more technocratic role requiring ‘recognised standing and professional experience in monetary or banking matters’. Candidates must also be citizens of euro area countries. As a result, the election process is more convoluted than for the other roles.

The European Council takes the final decision on who to select for the role, but this is done on the basis of a recommendation from the Council of the European Union, specifically the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (which is made up of the finance ministers of member states). It also consults with the European Parliament and governing council of the ECB, which includes the central bank governors from all euro zone member states, before making a decision.

5. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs

The High Representative for Foreign Affairs sits in the College of Commissioners as one of its Vice Presidents and effectively acts as a commissioner on international affairs. The selection process is relatively straightforward and comes after the election of the Commission president. The procedure is similar to that used to elect the president of the European Council in that the support of a reinforced qualified majority of member states in the European Council is needed.

The High Representative’s term runs for five years. The difference is that, unlike the president of the European Council, the High Representative must also be agreed with the president of the European Commission once they have been elected.

In theory, the election of individuals to each of these posts is a separate process. However, in practice, the member states and leading political groups in the European Parliament tend to treat them as a package to be divided along geographical and political lines, ensuring that no member state or group has a disproportionate number of positions.

Having said that, a number of national leaders who are members of the European Council believe the election of the ECB president should be treated separately, as it is not an explicitly political post. This is facilitated by the fact that the ECB president’s term of office is longer (eight years) than the terms of office of the other, more explicitly political posts.

Who are the candidates?

The only post for which explicit candidates have already been put forward is that of the European Commission president. Although the candidate for the role is formally nominated by the European Council, a lead candidate—or Spitzenkandidat—process was used previously in 2014 to select the candidate. However, this is an informal arrangement that has been resisted by a number of member states.

Each group in the Parliament selects a lead candidate prior to the European Parliament elections who is their nomination for the Commission presidency. In 2019 they were as follows:

  • Manfred Weber – European People’s Party (EPP)
  • Frans Timmermans – Party of European Socialists (S&D)
  • Jan Zahradil – European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
  • Seven candidates – Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
  • Ska Keller & Bas Eickhout – European Green Party (G/EFA)
  • Nico Cué – Party of the European Left (GUE/NGL)

The lead candidate from the largest political grouping—which in recent elections has been the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP)—has the first attempt to garner majority support of the Parliament. When Jean-Claude Juncker was elected to the post in 2014, he was the Spitzenkandidat of the EPP and managed to gain majority support in the newly-elected European Parliament. However, if the Spitzenkandidat from the largest political group cannot gain majority support, and if the process works as it should, it would then fall to one of the other lead candidates to attempt to do so.

The point of the system is to make the process of selecting the European Commission president more transparent and create a connection with public opinion as expressed in the preceding European Parliament elections. Both in 2014 and in 2019 voters could know whom their preferred national party supported for the presidency of the Commission.

However, the Spitzenkandidat process has been criticised by many for appearing a stitch-up by the largest political groups because there is no explicit link on the ballot paper between who the electorate supports and the lead candidates nominated.

For instance, when voters supported their national centre-right party in the recent European Parliament elections, is it fair to assume that this was also a vote in favour of the centre-right lead candidate Manfred Weber? Many, including French president Emmanuel Macron and his liberal grouping, argue that it isn’t.

By contrast, others argue that this same principle already operates in most member states in that only those who vote in the constituency of a candidate for the post of prime minister can genuinely claim to vote for or against that candidate. The rest of the electorate do so only indirectly, i.e. by opposing or supporting the same party’s candidate in their own constituency.

A more prosaic problem with the Spitzenkandidat system this time is that the largest political groupings aren’t as powerful as they were in the previous European Parliament, and they don’t align well with the composition of the European Council, so finding a candidate that has the support of both MEPs and member states looks set to be very complex.

What qualifications do they need?

It is generally accepted that candidates for these high-profile positions must have senior experience at either national or European level.

The ECB president requires specific expertise in ‘monetary and banking’ matters, and they will often be former central bank governors in their home member state or senior finance ministers.

The president of the European Parliament must obviously come from within Parliament itself, and it is down to the collective view of MEPs who takes this position.

Based on precedent, the European Council president, given they preside over the heads of state and government of the EU, must have been a head of state or government themselves and have sat on the European Council. Outgoing European Council president Donald Tusk was formerly the prime minister of Poland, and his predecessor Herman Van Rompuy was the prime minister of Belgium, prior to taking up the post.

Similarly, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs will usually be a figure who has senior political experience in international relations and foreign affairs. The outgoing High Representative, Federica Mogherini, was formerly a foreign minister in Italy.

The qualifications for the president of the European Commission are more ambiguous. The last three presidents have all been former prime ministers in their home states, but many of the leading candidates for the presidency this time do not have such experience.

A further criterion could well be the candidate’s gender. In the history of the Commission presidency, since the 1950s, there has never been a female president. Many leading figures, including the president of the European Council Donald Tusk, have stressed the need for the next Commission to be gender balanced and the selection of a female president could be an important priority.

There is also usually some consideration of the spread of nationalities and political ideologies across the various posts, to try and ensure that there is some reflection of the diversity of views and voices across the Union.

When will they take office?

The next president of the European Parliament will be elected during the first week of the new parliament, beginning on 2 July. The next European Commission president is due to take office on 1 November, as is the next ECB president and the High Representative as part of the next Commission.

The European Council president will take up their role on 1 December.

How long will they sit for?

Each of the EU’s top jobs has different term lengths. The president of the European Commission is elected for a five-year term to coincide with a full legislative period in the EU. The European Council president is elected for two-and-a-half years to June 2022.

The presidency of the European Parliament also runs for two-and-a-half years and will be renewed at the end of 2022. The president of the ECB serves an eight-term, which is non-renewable. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs serves a five-year term to coincide with the length of the Commission’s mandate.

Why does it matter who gets which job?

A declaration annexed to the Lisbon Treaty states that:

“In choosing the persons called upon to hold the offices of President of the European Council, President of the Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, due account is to be taken of the need to respect the geographical and demographic diversity of the Union and its Member States.”

This means, in simple terms, that the candidates for these roles cannot be from the same member state, must ideally be from member states from different geographical areas of the union, not just western Europe, as well as smaller member states, and must diverse in terms of gender and other demographic factors. The outgoing occupants of these three roles are from Poland, Luxembourg and Italy.

The purpose of this declaration is to ensure that no single member state, or group of member states, dominates the high political offices of the EU. Although each nominally forgoes their national allegiances in taking up these roles, their political, economic and social background within their home member state clearly has an impact of their priorities and conduct when in office. Domination of these roles by the larger, western member states risks alienating smaller member states from other parts of the EU.

By Matt Bevington, researcher at the UK in a Changing Europe.


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