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Europe’s Coming Game of Musical Chairs



The distribution of jobs in the superstructure of European-wide government is due for a shakeup in the next year, determining who will set the pace of the region’s integration at a time of intermittent economic growth. Personalities always matter in the jockeying for these jobs, and the political views of the various candidates also matter.

But the selection process for Europe’s top jobs is driven more by the broad political circumstances at the time of transition than the attractiveness of individual candidates. Several subtleties play an important role in determining the next leaders of the most important European institutions.

National Balance. The nations of Europe adhere to the principle that no single country may monopolize too many positions in government and that no country has a lock on specific jobs except by reappointment. At the same time, several EU institutions have explicit and implicit rules for national representation at the highest level. The EU Commission must have one commissioner from each member state, for example. It is further understood, but not legally required, that the three largest members of the euro area—Germany, France, and Italy—always have a representative on the six-person executive board of the European Central Bank (ECB). Large member states inevitably occupy more senior positions than smaller member states, but some smaller members—such as Luxembourg and the Netherlands—have often benefitted by providing compromise candidates between France and Germany and others. Since the global financial crisis of a decade ago, Germany’s economic dominance has meant that many Germans have occupied top European positions in recent years.

Geographic/Regional Balance. The most important regional balance in recent years has been that of “North-South.” In addition to the historical differences in governance traditions and legal frameworks between northern and southern member states, the two sections also loosely encompass the distinction between creditor and debtor nations within the euro area. A historically less prominent but increasingly palpable “East-West” balance between the new (after 2004) and older EU members must also be accommodated. New member state nationals can no longer be discarded as lacking experience. Meanwhile, the two groups have been diverging politically in recent years, making the general lack of East Europeans in top jobs a more prominent issue.

Political Left-Right Balance. Striking a balance between the political center-right and center-left in Europe is probably less important today than in earlier eras. The political differences between the two groups on technical issues have blurred, and the tradition of forming a “grand coalition” in the European Parliament has unraveled. The emergence of new centrist groupings like President Emmanuel Macron’s governing coalition in France further complicates matters because of the adoption of the Spitzenkandidat principle for the post of Commission president—i.e., the tradition of each party group fielding its own candidate for leader—which means that the next president of the European Commission might come from parties outside the traditional center-left or center-right blocks in Europe.

Gender Balance. The lack of women at the top of European institutions is an increasingly important political consideration, particularly for positions that require the consent or hearing of the European Parliament, including the ECB executive board. There is currently only one woman on the ECB Executive Board, while there has never been a female president of the European Commission or of numerous other European institutions.

These four factors make future appointments fluid and uncertain. In the last 12 months, the appointments made to several top European positions have implications for the future. Werner Hoyer from Germany was re-appointed in mid-2017 to another six-year term as president of the European Investment Bank Group for 2018–24. Klaus Regling from Germany was re-appointed last October to a second and final five-year term as managing director of the European Stability Mechanism for 2017–22. Elke Koenig of Germany was re-appointed in December 2017 for five years as chair of the Single Resolution Board for 2018–23. Mario Centeno of Portugal was appointed president of the EuroGroup for two and a half years for 2018–20. Hans Vijlbrief of the Netherlands was appointed in February 2018 as president of the EuroGroup Working Group for two years. Martin Selmayr of Germany was appointed to the open-ended position of secretary general (i.e. top administrator) of the European Commission, and Luis de Guindos of Spain was appointed vice president and member of the Executive Board of the ECB for 2018–26.

Thus, four Germans, one Portuguese, one Dutch, and one Spaniard—among whom only one was a woman—have recently taken new positions or continued as incumbents at the top of European institutions. The prominence of German appointments is evident, though in three out of four cases, these are reappointments into second and final terms in office, reflecting the political dominance of Germany. This suggests that the impact of these job continuations on future European appointments will be smaller than their numbers would suggest.

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