Why Iohannis has slim chances to enter the power-sharing game in Brussels…

Sursa foto: European Council

Why Iohannis has slim chances to enter the power-sharing game in Brussels / Understanding the power distribution algorithm in the EU

Like many such rumors, the one regarding Romanian President Klaus Iohannis’ potential move to Brussels as the head of the European Council warrants scrutiny beyond the Romanian political arena. It should be evaluated in the broader context of the European Union’s (EU) major power-brokering, which unfolds every electoral year when key positions within European institutions are up for grabs.

Every five years, following the European elections (like those in June 2024), EU member state capitals engage in a frenzy of backroom bargaining. These often undemocratic negotiations are more about the power of the moment, influence, balance, and a quota system that must maintain a semblance of parity among the main transnational parties in the European Parliament, as well as between capitals. The balance also includes gender (male-female) and regional representation (North-South as in Scandinavia-Mediterranean, and East-West as in the West and former Communist countries).

Sources from the Belgian Foreign Ministry, the country currently holding the rotating EU presidency, inform us that President Klaus Iohannis is not part of any serious current combinations.

The EU’s Power Distribution Algorithm: The Five Key Positions

Since the Treaty of Lisbon (effective from 2007), five key positions and power functions in the EU have been established:

  1. President of the European Council: Initially held by former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, followed by Poland’s Donald Tusk, and currently another Belgian, Charles Michel. The President coordinates the governments of the 27 member states and is considered a head of state. However, the Treaty of Lisbon did not foresee the current situation where Michel has announced his candidacy for the European Parliament elections in June, leading his Belgian Francophone liberal party, a member of the Renew transnational formation once led by Dacian Cioloș.

Charles Michel’s candidacy means he cannot preside over the June summit following the European elections, a critical time for appointments to the five key positions in European institutions. Consequently, the Council’s agenda will temporarily fall to the country assuming the EU’s rotating presidency at that time – Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, following Belgium. t’s difficult to imagine Viktor Orbán facilitating the unofficial candidacy of „Romanian” Klaus Iohannis to replace Belgian Charles Michel.

  1. President of the European Commission: Currently, former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, arguably the most powerful and coveted position in EU institutions.
  2. President of the European Parliament: Now held by Maltese Christian Democrat Roberta Metsola. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, this role has gained significant importance as the Parliament, the only elected body among EU institutions, seeks to establish itself as a legitimate legislative authority, constantly rivaling the Commission.

These three are joined by two other crucial roles, decided and appointed through negotiations between capitals after the European elections:

  1. High Representative for Foreign Affairs: Essentially the EU’s foreign minister, akin to the U.S. Secretary of State (currently Spain’s Josep Borrell).
  2. President of the European Central Bank: Currently held by Frenchwoman Christine Lagarde, based in Frankfurt.

In reality, the High Representative is just one of the 27 European Commissioners (one for each country). Therefore, a country receiving this position cannot have another Commissioner. Similarly, the Commission President is just one of the 27.

The main behind-the-scenes battles are usually not just between governments, but also (or especially) between the 27 governments and the European Parliament. The Parliament has increasingly asserted itself as a legitimate legislative body, bolstered by its democratic legitimacy (it is the only body elected at a continental scale) and, even though it cannot impose laws (most Parliamentary resolutions are consultative), it has considerable power in key areas: The Parliament votes on (or can block) the EU budget; it votes on (or rejects) the composition of the European Commission. And, at another level, the Parliament must mandatorily approve any expansion of the Union, any new member, even though it cannot impose an expansion.

The European Commission is thus dependent on the EU Parliament. Certainly, the selection of Commissioners and portfolio allocation is the exclusive prerogative of the Commission President, based on member state proposals.

However, each Commissioner is rigorously audited by the entire European Parliament, which can reject them or even block the Commission as a whole. Hence, in 2014, to appease the European Parliament, former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised and ensured that a third of the European Commissioners, 9 out of 28, were women. Desperate to meet the women’s quota, Juncker eventually accepted questionable candidates, Commissioners who were later kept at a distance within the institution.

Since 2014, the Parliament, traditionally dominated by the two major groups: the Christian Democrats (PPE) and the Socialists, managed to impose, at least temporarily, another system that the Council (the member state governments, the actual decision-makers, in practice) wants to abolish: the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates, in German). In this system, each transnational parliamentary group nominates a candidate for the Commission Presidency, with priority given to the candidate from the group with the most members continent-wide.

Consequently, recent Commission Presidents, including Barroso, Juncker, and von der Leyen, have come from the PPE group (nominally, Iohannis’ political group). This also leads to the perpetual domination of the Parliament by these two major groups, which have always had a tacit alliance: the PPE and the Socialists. Particularly under the influence of Emmanuel Macron, the majority of the 27 capitals are determined to end this system.

What Will Happen in June

As always, once every five years, starting this June, we will witness a showdown between the newly elected European Parliament and the member states.

It’s worth noting that the key functions at the top of European institutions are always negotiated as a „package,” not separately. These negotiations will have to apply several extremely important distribution grids: political groups (PPE, Socialists, and Liberals primarily), then a geographic distribution, North-South, East-West (as the East was represented at the head of the Council in the previous term by Poland’s Donald Tusk), or gender (the heads of the Commission, the EU Parliament, and the Central Bank, three out of five major posts, are currently women: Ursula von der Leyen, Roberta Metsola, and Christine Lagarde).

To summarize: the main roles to be distributed are 1. President of the European Commission, 2. the Council, 3. the EU Parliament, then 4. the High Representative for Foreign Policy, and 5. the Governor of the Central European Bank.

Klaus Iohannis does not appear to have any institutional or political support for any of these roles, let alone the most prestigious: the President of the Council. Of course, things have changed since the Treaty of Lisbon. For example, the role of the EU’s chief diplomat (High Representative) was initially occupied for a decade by two nominally socialist women: British Labour’s Catherine Ashton and Italy’s Federica Mogherini. Why? Because among these five major EU roles, the boxes for „woman” and „socialist” had to be ticked.

The first chief of EU diplomacy, Catherine Ashton, possessed no minimum competencies: she spoke only her native English, not even French. For Emmanuel Macron, who has four more years at the helm of France, where the European Parliament has one of its seats in Strasbourg, it will be unacceptable for Europe’s future „foreign minister” to not speak French.

There must also be a moderation of the ongoing confrontation between governments and the European Parliament, the only institution with elected members. Governments do not want to repeat the 2014 error when they allowed the Parliament, under a not very clear clause of the Treaty of Lisbon, to appoint the President of the European Commission based on the weight of the main political groups in Parliament. This is the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, with one candidate from each of the political groups. According to this system, the transnational political group with the most members theoretically automatically takes over the presidency of the European executive (the Commission).

In this astonishingly complex system, Klaus Iohannis starts with the following handicaps: he is a nominally Christian Democrat (PPE, a formation overrepresented in all institutions), an Eastern European who would run for a position (President of the Council) previously held by two Belgians and another Eastern European, Donald Tusk. Moreover, Iohannis is a very discreet head of state (generally a ceremonial role) who lacks open support in any of the major capitals. He is also a non-French speaker (a nod to Macron, with whom Iohannis has no affinity) and is virtually unknown in Europe at a time when the European project needs dynamic, well-known figures.

But There’s Also NATO

The dizzying complexity of EU negotiations for key positions was even greater in the past when it coincided with the appointment/election of a NATO Secretary-General (who must necessarily be a European civilian). Although the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is distinct from the European Union, it was tacitly accepted that a country placing a Secretary-General in NATO should have fewer claims to a major post in the EU. But Iohannis does not appear in any of the combinations, for many reasons. NATO does not choose its civilian leader from former heads of state. The reality is exactly the opposite:

Of the 13 NATO chiefs to date, nearly half (6) previously served as foreign ministers, 4 were defense ministers, and only 3 had led governments (that is, they were prime ministers, not presidents).

NATO has never been led by a former head of state or president; instead, the trend has been to appoint former foreign or defense ministers – half of the leaders so far. It’s clear that a politician with diplomatic or military experience is preferred over a former president, especially in countries like Germany or Italy, where the presidency is largely ceremonial and lacks the diplomatic expertise needed for such a role.

The prevailing rumor is that the search might focus on appointing, for the first time, a woman, preferably from Eastern Europe. If such a candidate is not found, Ursula von der Leyen, who enjoys the support of Joe Biden, could be considered. It’s uncertain if Biden even remembers who Iohannis is, and without U.S. support, it’s unlikely for anyone to lead NATO.

Furthermore, the role of leading a military organization is ranked below that of a head of state in international protocol. Hence, pursuing such a position would be seen as a step down for someone like Iohannis.

Selecting the NATO Secretary-General

There are no precise rules or algorithms for appointing the NATO Secretary-General; the process involves backstage negotiations among member states and requires a consensus among all 31 members.

The methods for choosing a NATO chief have always been extremely complex. Previously, the selection of the Alliance’s Secretary-General coincided with the dizzying negotiations for top EU positions (Commission, Council, etc.). The NATO Secretary-General must be a European civilian, while the Supreme Allied Commander Europe must be an American general, with the military headquarters located in Mons, Belgium.

Interplay with Major EU Appointments

Since NATO’s inception, it was decided that the Alliance’s political leader, the Secretary-General, would always be a European civilian, whereas the military head would be an American.

Thus, during the major negotiations in 2014, everyone tacitly agreed to a non-European, Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg (Norway is not an EU member), so that this position wouldn’t be part of the European bargaining package.

Similarly, Stoltenberg’s mandate was later extended to prevent his position from becoming a bargaining chip in European negotiations.


Translated from Romanian

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