With four months until the European Parliament (EP) elections, there are already some 20 names in the hat for the ensuing reshuffle of EU top jobs.
The European Commission’s presidency is the most powerful in terms of public profile, legislative powers, and budgetary weight.
And the incumbent, German conservative Ursula von der Leyen, has aggrandised the role by adding foreign policy to the portfolio, with noisy and hawkish views on Russia and Palestine in the Ukraine and Gaza wars.
The EU Council presidency is the highest job in terms of protocol, when it comes to chairing EU summits and welcoming foreign VIPs.
But the current holder here, Belgian liberal Charles Michel, has diminished the post, with protocol gaffes, reportedly bumbling EU-summit co-ordination, and flip-flopping on when he is to step down.
The EP presidency job, held by Maltese conservative Roberta Metsola, is largely honorific, but helps set the agenda of the EU assembly, which has increasingly more co-legislative powers.
The EU foreign service post, now held by Spanish socialist Josep Borrell, stands in the second rank in terms of formal hierarchies, but has also grown in political importance due to the multiplication of conflicts in Europe and its neighbourhood in the past five years.
The current mix of von der Leyen, Michel, Metsola, and Borrell reflects the EU logarithm for top-post equilibrium.
There is a mix of European political families, with a tilt to the centre-right.
There’s also a balance of northern and southern member states as well as large and small ones, albeit with no eastern capitals at the EU top table. And there’s even gender parity in a nod to modern values, though EU institutions still have an awful track record on ethnic diversity.
The Nato secretary-general job and European Central Bank (ECB) presidency post have nothing to do with the EP elections on paper, but can be a reward for any camp which lost out in the main race.
The EU commission’s most powerful commissioner-level portfolios — which include the single market, climate, competition, trade, energy, fiscal affairs, agriculture, and enlargement — can also be given to top-job losers as compensation.
The jobs are normally allocated in behind-the-scenes horse trading by EU capitals following the EP election, which starts on 6 June, and often go to former VIPs who are no longer in office, so as to minimise political disruption.
The EP vote also designates Spitzenkandidaten — a German word meaning “top candidates” and referring to each EU political family’s selected figurehead for the election.
But while a big win for a political group gives them more clout in the behind-the-scenes EU talks, there’s no guarantee their Spitzenkandidat will get the job they wanted in the end.
And all that means EP committee-chair posts are the only ones in Brussels which are allocated democratically — according to a mathematical system based on voting outcomes that was first devised by US founding father Thomas Jefferson.
Looking at past EU-jobs fights, it’s typical for those who put forward their names early to fall by the wayside, because their adversaries have more time to attack them, before coming out with their own dark horse or black swan.
That might not be the case with von der Leyen, who is expected to seek a second term, due to broad support for her staying on.
But the timing might bode ill for other hopefuls who’ve already signalled a potential interest, even if this amounted to no more than refusing to definitively rule themselves out after being proposed by others.
Those already in the frame include: Xavier Bettel (a centre-right former Luxembourg leader), António Costa (a socialist former Portuguese prime minister), Alexander de Croo (the liberal Belgian prime minister), Mario Draghi (an Italian technocrat and former ECB chief), Mette Frederiksen (the centre-left Danish prime minister), Kaja Kallas (the liberal Estonian prime minister), Enrico Letta (a centre-left Italian MP and former prime minister), Mark Rutte (a liberal former Dutch prime minister), Pedro Sánchez (the socialist Spanish prime minister), and Leo Varadkar (the centre-right Irish leader).
Second-rank names include: Katarina Barley (a centre-right German MEP and former justice minister), Krišjānis Kariņš (Latvia’s centre-right foreign minister), Micheál Martin (the centre-right Irish foreign minister), Teresa Ribera (a socialist Spanish deputy prime minister), Maroš Šefčovič (a centre-left Slovak EU commissioner), and Frans Timmermans (a green Dutch former EU commissioner).
That already puts quite a few political flags, geographical locations, and genders in the mix for the EU logarithm to do its work.
There’s also the Spiztenkandidaten, even if they end up being lame ducks.
The socialist S&D group has nominated the little-known Luxembourgish EU commissioner Nicolas Schmit. The Greens have put forward German and Dutch MEPs Terry Reintke and Bas Eickhout. The centre-right, liberal, and right-wing groups haven’t declared yet.
“Assuming von der Leyen serves a second term, the political balance of power would put a socialist as president of the European Council and a liberal for HRVP [the EU foreign-policy post],” said Eric Maurice, from the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think-tank in Brussels.
Costa, Kallas, and Frederiksen were “serious contenders”, Maurice said — although Costa must first get the all-clear in an ongoing Portuguese anti-corruption probe to remain viable.
“The Baltics are now punching above their weight when it comes to foreign and defence policy,” the EPC expert said.
“The Draghi [as EU Council president] hypothesis is interesting because it implies that EU leaders would be ready to choose a very strong personality for one of the top jobs, and someone who is not aligned with one of the main European parties,” Maurice added.
The “stakes are so high for the EU” due to the economic and security environment, while recent leaders have been so “disappointing”, Maurice also said, that the “personal qualities” of individuals should matter more than in the past.
Meanwhile, if dark horses were to emerge before June, one might well come from Poland, which now has an EU-friendly government and whose stature has magnified in Europe due to its central role in channelling Western aid to Ukraine.
Others might be individuals with a high profile in fighting climate change or poverty — two of the hottest issues among the EU’s general public as it heads into the EP vote, according to a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think-tank.
June heralds the start of the EU’s climate-related wildfire season. Farmers’ and other social protests are spreading.
The next topic voters cared about in the ECFR survey was migration — an old battleground between the far right and EU mainstream.
The Gaza war has hit raw nerves on related issues, such as Islamophobia, antisemitism, and racism in Europe, which will get worse if the war spreads beyond Gaza in the run-up to the EP vote, or prompts terrorist attacks in Europe.
And that means far-right groups might come out with their own EU top-job candidates, if they scoop up lots of extra votes, as predicted by pollsters in the feverish atmosphere.