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EU leaders meet in Brussels to divvy up top jobs. These are the frontrunners

Ursula von der Leyen and Kaja Kallas are among the contenders for the EU top jobs.
Ursula von der Leyen and Kaja Kallas are among the contenders for the EU top jobs. Copyright Europea Union, 2023.
Copyright Europea Union, 2023.
By Jorge LiboreiroAida Sanchez Alonso
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The tricky distribution of top jobs is the next chapter after the elections to the European Parliament.

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The post-election game of horse trading faces its first test on Monday as leaders of the European Union meet in Brussels to discuss, and possibly assign, the bloc's top jobs.

The informal summit will see the 27 heads of state and government haggle over who should be the next president of the European Commission, president of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

The negotiations have traditionally been a delicate juggling act: the distribution of top jobs needs to consider political affiliations, geographical origins and gender balance to ensure the greatest support across the table.

In 2019, the selection came after several days of wrangling, including an all-night marathon that left leaders visibly exhausted.

This time around, Brussels might be in for an easier ride.

In the aftermath of the elections, a consensus has emerged faster than many had anticipated: Ursula von der Leyen for the Commission, António Costa for the Council and Kaja Kallas for High Representative.

"This is the direction of travel," said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's a clear interest in getting clarity and predictably quickly."

Another diplomat suggested the fast pace with which the package has been put together was mostly due to the lack of credible alternatives from the parties.

Although hopes are high for a swift resolution, the final agreement might not be sealed at Monday's dinner and be pushed back to the formal summit on 27 June.

Here's how things are looking up.

European Commission: Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen wants to lead the European Commission for a second term.
Ursula von der Leyen wants to lead the European Commission for a second term.European Union, 2024.

Since announcing her re-election bid in February, von der Leyen has been considered the indisputable frontrunner for the European Commission. The 65-year-old German has led the executive through back-to-back crises over the past five years, while ensuring the legislative activity maintained its original ambition.

Her heavily centralised way of working, her far-reaching Green Deal, her knee-jerk reaction to the farmer protests, and, crucially, her initial response to the Israel-Hamas war, where she was pictured shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were once considered obstacles in her path to a second term.

But the overwhelming victory of her centre-right European People's Party (EPP), in the June elections, capturing 190 seats, has brushed aside these concerns. Von der Leyen has already started negotiations with the Socialists and Liberals to build a centrist coalition for the next five years, without formally involving Giorgia Meloni's hard-right peers.

Von der Leyen, a sitting member of the European Council, will attend Monday's summit but recuse herself once the conversation on top jobs begins. Should she get the leaders' blessing, she will later face a grilling at the European Parliament, where she will need the backing of a majority of newly-elected members - 361 votes - to secure the job.

Ahead of the elections, Brussels was abuzz with speculation of possible alternatives to von der Leyen. Other EPP leaders like Croatia's Andrej Plenković, Romania's Klaus Iohannis and Greece's Kyriakos Mitsotakis were floated, together with Roberta Metsola, the current president of the European Parliament.

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Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was another alternative who attracted the most headlines. But the pitch, widely attributed to French officials as a stratagem to extract concessions from von der Leyen, was always far-fetched: Draghi is not affiliated with any political party and his appointment would completely disrupt the horse-trading game.

European Council: António Costa

António Costa used to serve as Prime Minister of Portugal.
António Costa used to serve as Prime Minister of Portugal.European Union.

The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) came in at a distant second spot in the European election, with 136 seats. But the result is not dampening their ambitions.

The centre-left family has set its sights on the presidency of the European Council, a job that lacks legislative powers but acquires special relevance in times of crisis, when leaders gather in emergency meetings to take pivotal decisions.

The current holder is Charles Michel, a Belgian liberal, who cannot be re-elected after serving two consecutive 2.5-year terms. Michel's leadership has been divisive: his failed attempt to run as a candidate in the European elections earlier this year backfired and exposed the perils of appointing someone relatively young (and ambitious) to run the European Council.

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The Socialists have sensed an opening and put forward the name of a veteran: António Costa, the 62-year-old politician who acted as Portugal's prime minister between 2015 and 2024. During his tenure, Costa was widely appreciated by his fellow leaders for his constructive attitude and approachable character.

But his stay in power was cut short in November 2023, when he resigned after several members of his cabinet were accused of corruption and influence peddling in the concession of lithium mining, green hydrogen and data centre projects. Costa is suspected of enabling some of these irregular deals.

Soon after his resignation, prosecutors admitted having confused the name of António Costa with that of Economy Minister António Costa Silva in the transcript of wiretaps. This and other mistakes have undermined the legal case, creating an impression among diplomats in Brussels that Costa's name will be eventually cleared.

Should EU leaders have second thoughts, a socialist alternative might be Denmark's Mette Frederiksen, but she has denied any interest in a top job. Mario Draghi has also been touted for the Council, where his gravitas would be an asset.

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High Representative: Kaja Kallas

Kaja Kallas has pushed the EU to adopt harder sanctions against Russia.
Kaja Kallas has pushed the EU to adopt harder sanctions against Russia.Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

The liberal family of Renew Europe, which fell from 102 to 80 seats in the European elections, also wants to secure a top job, despite their disappointing performance.

Socialists are laser-focused on the Council, leaving the Liberals with the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The office has increased in importance as the bloc grapples with global crises, but its effectiveness remains constrained by the principle of unanimity.

The current holder is Josep Borrell, a staunch socialist who has often frustrated diplomats for going off script and voicing personal viewpoints not shared by the 27.

Geography will be the key factor in choosing his successor. With the Commission and Council heading to Western and Southern Europe, respectively, the thinking goes that the High Representative should go to an Eastern representative.

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The double criteria of liberal and Eastern Europe vastly reduces the list of candidates and pushes Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas to the very fore. Over the past two years, Kallas has become a leading voice in the EU's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, urging the bloc to adopt harder sanctions against the Kremlin and chastising Western allies who fail to deliver their promised ammunition to Kyiv.

Her policies were once considered too hard-line and Baltic-centric but the brutal reality of war has shifted the debate in her favour. She is now a serious contender to be the EU's next foreign policy chief. If appointed, she will have to prove that she can also speak convincingly about other regions, like Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

"She's not a red line for anyone," said a diplomat. "The position of High Representative is largely determined by the mandate given by the member states."

Another liberal candidate is Belgium's Alexander De Croo, who recently resigned as prime minister, but his Western European origins might play against him. Radosław Sikorski, a former MEP who now serves as Poland's foreign minister and is a vocal supporter of Ukraine, fits the bill of High Representative. However, he is affiliated with the EPP so his nomination would send leaders back to the drawing board.

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