Explaining the European Union’s Leadership Shuffle





Leaders of the 27 EU member states are meeting in Brussels on June 27-28, where they are expected to decide who will take the top jobs across the bloc’s various institutions. The key roles are the three presidents — of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament — and the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

In all likelihood, the German center-right candidate from the European People’s Party (EPP) group, Ursula von der Leyen, will get another five years as president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, as will her fellow EPP member and Maltese politician Roberta Metsola, who is expected to retain the presidency of the European Parliament for another two and a half years. Metsola would then hand over the role to a candidate from the second-biggest group in the chamber, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialist and Democrats (S&D) in a classic European Parliament power-sharing deal.

The general consensus is that former Portuguese left-wing Prime Minister Antonio Costa will replace Charles Michel as the president of the European Council, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas from the liberal Renew group will succeed Spaniard Josep Borrell as the EU foreign policy chief.

Deep Background: There were high hopes that this process could have already been wound up last week, on June 17, at an informal EU leaders’ meeting in Brussels. But according to several sources I have spoken to who are familiar with the discussion, two things prevented a deal.

Firstly, the EPP, which emerged as the winner of the recent European Parliament elections, is asking for more. According to my sources, in addition to the presidencies of the European Commission and European Parliament, the EPP also wants to get half of the European Council president’s job.

But how would this work? While the European Council president serves a term lasting five years, after two and a half years, the 27 EU heads of state and government evaluate the job done by the office holder and — at least so far — renew the term for another two and a half years. The vote has to be carried by qualified majority voting, which means 55 percent of the EU member states, representing 65 percent of the bloc’s total population.

Normally, the largest political group in parliament gets to put forward its candidate for the European Commission president’s post, whereas the second and third groups get dibs on the European Council president and the foreign policy chief jobs.

The EPP suggested Costa, the main candidate for the post, just serve half a term and then be replaced by Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, an EPP stalwart. Needless to say the EPP’s suggestion didn’t go down very well.

Why is the EPP feeling so confident? It certainly had a good result in the European Parliament elections as the only major group to gain ground, finishing first by some distance with 190 seats.

It’s more, however, to do with the composition of the European Council, which comprises the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states. Thirteen leaders on the council belong to the EPP, although they are mainly smaller countries, with the biggest being Poland. The EPP is banking on more, calculating that within two years there will be future EPP-affiliated leaders coming from heavyweights such as Germany and Spain. If that bears out, the EPP would have more than a qualified majority in the room.

The second factor that prevented a deal last week was the process itself. Apparently, the chief negotiators from the three main parliamentary groups — Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for the EPP, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez for the S&D, and Renew’s French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — hammered it out for over three hours, leaving the other leaders waiting around.

Right-wing Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, was, according to my sources with knowledge of the meeting, furious about being excluded from the talks. Her Brothers Of Italy party is the strongest component of the ECR, which finished in a respectable fourth place in the European elections. And since the June 17 summit, the ECR has managed to mop up a few unattached members of parliament, leapfrogging Renew into becoming the third biggest group in the chamber.

Drilling Down

It’s not exactly clear what Meloni wants to get out of taking this stance. It’s not thought she’s interested in securing one of the four top EU positions but is instead keen on pushing for an Italian portfolio in the European Commission. (That could mean, for instance, a vice president with a mandate on the economy or migration.) A reminder once again that, more important than the four names, it’s the jockeying behind the scenes that really matters.

If the EU leaders eventually agree on the top jobs, the real test will come from the European Parliament. EU leaders don’t actually have a vote when it comes to the parliament’s president. That’s the sole responsibility for the parliament itself, which is set to elect Metsola with a simply majority in Strasbourg on July 16. On the other hand, the parliament doesn’t have a say when it comes to the president of the European Council. That position just needs a qualified majority of member states’ leaders to sign off.

For the European Commission president and the foreign policy chief, the situation is more complex. Those positions need a qualified majority of leaders, but then, on top of that, they also need to pass the European Parliament with a simple majority. In short, all the positions are up for negotiation.

In 2019, the commission’s current president, Von der Leyen, scraped through parliament with just nine votes. A July vote might even be tighter this time around, as there are fewer MEPs from the four major groups (EPP, S&D, Renew, and the Greens) than last time, and Von der Leyen probably can’t count on votes from anywhere else. If the European Parliament flexes its muscles and rejects her, the leaders will have to go back to the drawing board and find an alternative candidate that could muster the 361 votes needed in parliament.

How The EU Is Expected To Respond To A Backsliding Georgia

The European Union is starting to prepare a response to Georgia in light of Tbilisi passing last month a controversial “foreign agent” law that requires NGOs and media groups receiving at least 20 percent of their funding from outside the country to register as organizations “pursuing the interests of a foreign power.” The legislation has been compared to a law in Russia, first passed in 2012 and expanded since, which has been used to stifle opposition and clamp down on free media.

A recent options paper seen by RFE/RL and authored by the EU’s diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, considers how Brussels could reorient its policy toward Georgia and notes that the government in Tbilisi has also “taken other worrying steps in recent months.” That’s a reference to other controversial laws passed recently, for example those on so-called LGBT propaganda, amendments to the electoral code, and also “steps affecting the independence of the Georgian National Bank.”

Deep Background: What does the paper actually propose? Essentially it spells out three levels of potential measures. Firstly there are the “short-term measures” that can be adopted immediately and, according to the document, be “lifted once the [‘foreign agent’] law is repealed, and provided that EU concerns on democratic backsliding are sufficiently addressed and…accompanied by clear public messages.”

According to the options paper, these short-term measures would consist of scaling down engagement with the Georgian authorities and halting the disbursement of EU funds to the country. That could mean high-level bilateral visits are suspended and ongoing negotiations on, for example, lowering roaming tariffs between the bloc and Georgia are paused.

Regarding the EU funds, it could simply be a matter of reallocating financial assistance to civil society and independent media organizations, instead of the Georgian government.

The paper also mentions the possibility of freezing the impending adoption of a 30 million euros ($32 million) package of nonlethal military aid.

All these measures could be taken swiftly by the European Commission, without member states having to give their approval. Yet it is customary in Brussels that the commission seeks “guidance” from the member states in order to proceed.

This is what happened at the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg on June 24 when the bloc’s foreign ministers had an initial discussion on the options paper. While some countries already wanted to move ahead, notably Estonia and Lithuania, other member states such as Hungary and Slovakia preferred to proceed more slowly.

The issue will certainly come up again, most likely at the EU summit in Brussels on June 27-28. Draft summit conclusions, seen by RFE/RL, do not include any potential punitive measures, with the leaders instead expressing their concern about recent developments in Georgia and calling on the government “to clarify their intentions by reversing the course of action, which puts into question Georgia’s progress on its EU path.”

Drilling Down

What about the other two levels of measures? The second level spells out the potential action to take “in case of further deterioration,” such as the use of violence against peaceful protesters and intimidation or major irregularities in the electoral process. Under such circumstances, the recommendation would be for member states to introduce a temporary Schengen visa requirement for all holders of Georgian diplomatic passports. The paper notes that “this measure could have a symbolic value to restrict the privileges of the government officials/diplomats, while not affecting the general population.”

Another possibility for the second level of measures could be visa bans and asset freezes on people and entities under the EU’s Global Human Rights Regime. For example, under this sanctions instrument, the EU has targeted those it deems responsible for the imprisonment and death of the Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny.

The problem with these more severe measures is that they require unanimity among the EU’s 27 member states, and consensus is often hard to find. And finding concrete evidence linking serious human rights violations to the actions of officials is not always easy. Such measures likely wouldn’t target high-ranking Georgian officials but rather lower-level judges and police chiefs — which was the case with the Navalny sanctions listings.

The final, most severe tier of measures would be applied in the case of a “significant deterioration of the situation.” In this case, according to the options paper, there would be “steps related to the enlargement path.” Georgia officially become an EU candidate country in December 2023 and the European Commission is due to present its annual EU enlargement report in October. Unless anything changes dramatically, the summit conclusions will be far from complimentary toward Georgia.

In terms of the country’s EU application, it’s most likely Georgia won’t move forward for now. That means it won’t follow Ukraine and Moldova with the opening of formal EU accession talks, which is expected to happen on June 25. It could, of course, also lose its candidate status, but this has never happened before and would require all member states to be on board.

The nuclear option would be suspending visa liberalization to the EU that Georgian citizens have enjoyed since 2017. If this did happen, it would take place in the fall when the European Commission presents its annual report on visas. For a initial suspension of nine months, it is enough if a qualified majority of EU member states are in favor.

A suspension of this kind is unlikely, however, and is thought to be a rather blunt instrument only used once in EU history: against the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. The options paper acknowledges as much by stating that “while this measure could be powerful leverage for Georgia to reconsider the law at stake, its immediate negative impact would be on the Georgian population” and adds that the focus should be on “entry bans against individuals” and member states committing to not granting “visa exemptions to service or diplomatic passport holders.”

Looking Ahead

The Intergovernmental Conferences with Moldova and Ukraine on June 25 in Luxembourg will mark the official opening of EU accession talks with the two countries. The talks will likely last for many years, but it is a symbolic and historic moment for Chisinau and Kyiv.

A day later, on June 26, Aleksandar Vucic and Albin Kurti, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo, respectively, will meet in Brussels for an EU-mediated dialogue for the first time since September 2023. A few days after that unsuccessful meeting last year, an armed group of Serbs attacked Kosovar police in the northern town of Banjska killing one officer. Three Serbs were also killed in the clashes.

By RFE/RL



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