EU Negotiations: Who Could Be the New President of the European Council?

Politics - January 28, 2024

There are six months to go until the European Parliament elections and it seems that some negotiations have already started for the top jobs in the European Union. While only one name has been put forward so far for the post of president of the European Commission, that of its current holder, Ursula von der Leyen, three possible candidates are already being considered for the post of president of the European Council, which would become vacant if the incumbent, Charles Michel, wins a mandate as an MEP.

Klaus Iohannis on shortlist for European Council presidency

One of these three names is the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis. Although analysts in Bucharest and abroad don’t give him much of a chance, the ruling coalition in Bucharest is already seriously discussing his possible candidacy and scenarios on how a possible success would influence the domestic political scene ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of the year. The president of the European Council chairs meetings of the 27 EU leaders and represents the bloc on foreign policy issues.

The post of President of the European Council has been held since 2019 by the Belgian Charles Michel, who recently announced that he will run for a seat in the European Parliament, and that if he gets it, he will resign immediately.  If the position becomes vacant, EU leaders will either have to elect a new president of the Council or, under EU rules, accept that the country holding the rotating EU presidency will lead the Council, which is Hungary, which holds the presidency from the 1st of July to the 31st of December 2024. In other words, EU leaders are expected to hand over the job to Budapest leader Viktor Orban, who is frowned upon in Brussels because of his positions, often at odds with most EU leaders. So there is every interest on their part to reach a result in negotiations.  But what chance does Klaus Iohannis have? Commentators in Bucharest and abroad say they range from very poor to zero.  Those who say there is a chance invoke a European custom that unless they agree otherwise, European leaders choose the longest-serving among them. Or, at present, the longest-serving Council members are, in order, Orban and Iohannis. What is certain is that if the political representatives in Bucharest were to succeed in getting Iohannis – or, why not? another Romanian politician – to negotiate, and even if it came down to choosing the lesser of two evils, it would be an unprecedented victory not only for Romania, but also for the other countries of Eastern Europe, and, in general, for the small countries of the Union which, when it comes to sharing out high positions in the EU, have so far remained on the sidelines. The only one who seems optimistic and believes that Romania has a “real chance” at this position is the Romanian Social Democrat Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu. He stressed in an official statement that not President Klaus Iohannis but Romania “has a real chance and even a very good chance”. Marcel Ciolacu’s statement was contradicted on Europa Liberă by Dacian Ciolos, Romania’s former technocrat prime minister, now a Renew MEP. Dacian Ciolos was one of the Romanian politicians involved in the negotiations for the election of Charles Michel, the current President of the European Council. Dacian Ciolos said that the Social Democrat Prime Minister has no idea what negotiations at this level mean and said that it is not a country, but a person that is in the running for this position.

The only one who neither confirmed nor denied it was President Klaus Iohannis who, in 2022, said that, if he were offered a position in Brussels, he would seriously consider leaving Romania. Klaus Iohannis is probably cautious in his statements because, after this statement, given in the context in which his name was put on a list of possible replacements for Jens Stotenberg, NATO Secretary General, he did not finally resign. Romania is represented in NATO structures by social-democrat politician Mircea Geoană, who is deputy secretary general. The fact is that Iohannis can no longer run for the highest office in the Romanian state, as Romania’s constitution limits a person to a maximum of two terms. Moreover, even if we cannot speak of customs in Romania, it is a well-established custom in recent decades for politicians whose careers have reached an end point domestically to seek a position either in European bodies or in diplomacy.

On the other hand, the departure of Klaus Iohannis before the end of his mandate, with almost half a year to go, could bring electoral benefits to his party, the PNL. One of the scenarios discussed within the party and the governing coalition in Bucharest is that Iohannis would resign in early summer and the position would be taken over, according to the Constitution, by the President of the Senate and leader of the PNL, Nicolae Ciucă. The PNL is counting on the fact that, as interim president, Nicolae Ciucă would be able to capitalise on this opportunity electorally, increasing his chances of entering the second round of the presidential elections, alongside, most likely, one of his current allies in the ruling PSD. And there are two previous candidates who have shown that there is a stronger mobilization of the right-wing electorate against the PSD for the nomination of the country’s leader, one of them being Klaus Iohannis, the other being his predecessor, Traian Băsescu. The date of the presidential elections has not yet been set, but the Liberals would like the elections for the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to take place either after the presidential elections, which would be on the 10th  and the 24th of November, or at the same time as the local elections, which the Social Democrats reject.

On the other hand, Klaus Iohannis’ chances of success as President of the European Commission are closely linked to the results of the European Parliament elections in June. According to calculations in Brussels, the elections for the next European Parliament could be won by the European People’s Party (EPP). In such a scenario, the EPP will have as its priority to occupy one of the most important European positions, namely that of president of the European Commission, and not that of president of the Council. This is what Ursula von der Leyen is counting on, as she is expected to announce her candidacy for a second term as head of the EU government at the EPP congress in Bucharest on the 6th-7th of March. Although the post of president of the European Council could be claimed by the Socialists – who, according to polls, would get the second highest score in the European Parliament elections – there is a precedent for breaking them. From 2014 to 2019, the European People’s Party also held the office of President of the European Council, through Donald Tusk, and that of President of the European Commission, through Jean Claude Junker.

According to Bloomberg journalists, who also talk about the calculations being made in Brussels, in the next European Council, about half of the heads of state – 13 out of 27 – are from the European People’s Party family. One of them is Iohannis himself, whose party, the PNL, is also affiliated to the EPP, so this too could tip the balance in favour of an EPP candidate for the Council presidency. 

Besides the Romanian president, two other names are currently being floated for the post – former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank, and Xavier Bettel, former prime minister and now foreign minister of Luxembourg. While the former has not yet made any official statements on the subject, the latter told RTL that he is not currently running and wants to stay in his home country, Bloomberg adds.