Vestager Eyes Top EU Job as Liberals Get Boost From Elections

Viktoria Dendrinou and Birgit Jennen
Vestager Eyes Top EU Job as Liberals Get Boost From Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Margrethe Vestager is eyeing a path to become the first woman atop the EU, as focus shifts from the results of the bloc-wide elections to leaders’ haggling over who’ll be put at the helm of the European Commission.

The Liberal Danish EU antitrust chief, who has made a name for herself by taking on U.S. tech giants, hasn’t kept shy about her intention to seize the EU’s most powerful post, calling for gender balance in the upper echelons of the European Union and for an end to the center-right’s hold on power in Brussels.

EU leaders will hold a special summit on Tuesday to kick off a first round of horsetrading over top EU jobs that could be mired in stalemate. At stake isn’t just the leadership of the commission, which has major powers on key issues such as competition and trade, but also that of the European Central Bank. This means the final compromise could affect the EU’s economic policy making for the next decade.

The haggling over the top roles comes at a tricky time for Europe’s traditional political groups. While mainstream EU parties held their ground against the assault from populists in elections for the bloc’s Parliament, that was largely thanks to gains from pro-EU Liberals and Greens.

‘Monopoly of Power’

The center-right and center-left alliances fell short of controlling the majority of seats in the European Parliament for the first time since direct elections began 40 years ago, weakening their claim to the EU’s helm.

That could pave the way for someone like Vestager, who comes from the EU’s smaller pro-business Liberal alliance, which also includes Emmanuel Macron’s party, to seek the bloc’s leadership.

“I have worked with breaking monopolies, this is basically what I’ve been doing for five years,” Vestager said on Sunday in Brussels. “The monopoly of power is broken.”

But that’s not all Vestager has going for her. Officials in France and Germany have signaled their openness to her candidacy, even after she blocked plans by Siemens AG and Alstom SA to create a fearsome European rail giant to battle China. While her decision was publicly criticized by top politicians in Paris and Berlin, in private many saw it as an indication that she’s not someone that can be easily pushed around by EU capitals when it comes to difficult decisions.

Even though Vestager’s liberal coalition boosted its ranks at the election, the mainstream center-left and center-right parties still hold the most seats in the assembly and will probably claim the throne of the bloc’s executive. Meanwhile, EU leaders may still opt to pick a new EU Commission chief out of a list of candidates who aren’t officially running for the role.

Political Capital

Whoever ends up with the commission presidency will have to steer the EU through challenges ranging from from U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade strategy, a sluggish recovery in the euro area, seeking a way to share the burden of non-EU migrants and any likely fallout from the U.K.’s exit from the bloc, scheduled for the end of October.

Officials from smaller nations have also suggested she could be a good compromise candidate, especially in light of the weaker showing by the large political groups. But the final compromise should also take into account geographical balance between southern, northern and eastern member states.

The question is whether Macron wants to spend his political capital on her, as that could potentially strip him of any claim for the ECB Presidency -- a post Germany also thinks it should reclaim.

Both top jobs will require striking a fine balance of politics, gender and passport, in order to avoid backlash from many different corners. Other posts that could go in the mix to appease countries and political groups include the presidency of the European Council -- who presides over EU leaders’ summits -- as well as that of the EU’s foreign policy chief and the head of the European Parliament.

Macron is set to meet Spanish premier Pedro Sanchez on Monday for a dinner in Paris to discuss top jobs ahead of the leaders’ summit, while more meetings between leaders are scheduled tomorrow as the official horsetrading begins.

--With assistance from Viktoria Dendrinou, Marine Strauss, Alexander Weber, Lorenzo Totaro, Gregory Viscusi, Eleni Chrepa, Birgit Jennen, Ian Wishart and Jonathan Stearns.

To contact the reporters on this story: Viktoria Dendrinou in Brussels at vdendrinou@bloomberg.net;Birgit Jennen in Berlin at bjennen1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Nikos Chrysoloras, Richard Bravo

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