, BRUSSELS, Mar 10 – It is all change at the top this year for the European Union, kicking off with May elections for the European Parliament followed by the naming in July of a new speaker.
In November, EU leaders will appoint a new president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, when its five-year mandate ends, as well as a new chair of the bloc’s political wing, the European Council.
In addition, the 28 member states must replace Catherine Ashton at the European External Action Service, which was set up in 2009 to coordinate EU foreign policy and has become one of the bloc’s most high profile roles.
Here is what is at stake as well as the favourites to win the posts.
EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT PRESIDENT
The speaker, officially known as president of the Parliament, is elected in each new assembly as MEPs work out their groupings and alliances in what can be a protracted period of bargaining.
There are no candidates or favourites at this stage as the outcome will depend on the results of the EU-wide May 22-25 election for 751 seats.
But one name often cited is former Belgium premier Guy Verhofstadt, the outspoken head of the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) but who is also cited as a possible runner for European Commission chief.
Seats will be contested by more than a dozen political groups, led by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest in the outgoing assembly.
They are closely followed by the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), centrist group ALDE and the Greens, the environmentalist voice in Parliament.
This is the first Parliament election since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty came into force sharply increasing the assembly’s powers, especially with the provision that EU member state leaders must now take into account the results of the May vote when choosing the next head of the European Commission.
Parliament — the EU’s only directly-elected institution — must also approve their nomination.
PRESIDENT OF THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION
The Parliament elections will have a direct bearing on who succeeds Jose Manuel Barroso in November, with the main groups already deciding their candidates even if it is still not absolutely clear that their choice will get past EU leaders.
Current favourite is former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, backed by the EPP at their convention in Dublin, but he faces a tough challenger in Martin Schulz, currently the S&D speaker of Parliament.
The European Commission is the executive arm of the EU, acting as its civil service to draw up the legislative proposals needed to put European Council decisions into effect. It also initiates policy proposals.
As such, it has huge influence, although this has been eroded to some extent in recent years with the setting up of the European Council and by Parliament’s new-found oversight powers since 2009.
The Commission, housed in the huge Berlaymont building in the Schuman district of central Brussels, is very much the public face of the EU and the one which comes in for most public criticism. The Commission president leads a team of 28 Commissioners — one from each country — who will also be new faces.
CHAIR OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL
The Council is the political arm of the EU, bringing together member state leaders and their top officials to make the bloc’s policy decisions.
Current head of the post as go-between among the often divided states is Belgian Hermann Van Rompuy, a former premier known for his quiet steady leadership and ability to build common ground. With 28 leaders determined to ensure their national interests are respected at all times, this is an essential skill.
Juncker was one name mentioned as a possible successor alongside Irish Premier Enda Kenny, Werner Feymann of Austria and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
EU FOREIGN POLICY CHIEF
This post is currently held by Britain’s Ashton who has played a high-profile role in many of the top international issues, from Iran’s contested nuclear programme to Middle East peace and the crisis in Ukraine.
She heads a service that has grown from nothing to around 3,000 staff in less than three years, with offices worldwide.
Backed by former British prime minister Tony Blair for the job in 2009, competition will be just as intense and hugely political as EU leaders battle it out to get their candidate named to one of the EU’s most sought-after jobs.
Among possible successors are Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski or Slovak counterpart Miroslav Lajcak, giving the newer Eastern Europe EU members a strong voice. Also in the running are the foreign ministers of the Netherlands or Sweden, Frans Timmermans and Carl Bildt.
EU leaders however will be aware that naming a man would put them under pressure to consider a woman for another of the top posts.