On June 21st there will be a changing of the guard in the corridors of power in Brussels when the successor to outgoing European Council president Donald Tusk is announced. Speculation is currently in full swing with two names emerging as frontrunners – Angela Merkel and Mark Rutte.
The dust has barely settled on last month’s European elections but now thoughts are turning to who will get the EU’s top job. Whoever is chosen, they will be tasked with setting the priorities of the bloc for the next half decade.
Particularly well equipped for the position, Angela Merkel – whose CDU scraped through as top party in European Elections on May 26th with an historically low share of the vote (28.9%) – is the favorite. The chancellor has a lot in her favor, starting with her legitimacy as a global political heavyweight who could stand up to the US, China and Russia, should the need arise. Her political profile surpasses the other candidates; she was elected Time magazine’s person of the year in 2015 and has equally had an extraordinary political career at national level as the first women or person from the former East Germany to become chancellor.
Composed and pragmatic
Highlights on her resumé include managing the global economic crisis of 2008 and the hot potato that was the Greek default, whose economy she help save from collapse, alongside those of Ireland and Portugal. In her 30 years on the national political scene, she has somehow managed to avoid becoming embroiled in controversy and has never been overwhelmed by the emergencies that have come her way, such as the refugee crisis of 2015. Famously pragmatic and composed, her handling of crisis situations has seen her reputation and popularity increase. Open and liberal to the core, she is profoundly attached to freedom…of markets, citizens and thought. Respected for her chutzpah and honesty, she would make the perfect candidate, according to former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta, one of her biggest cheerleaders.
Open and direct
The other favorite in the race to succeed Donald Tusk is the current prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, whose right-wing liberal party (VVD), came in second in polling to the worker’s party in the recent EU elections. Less well known on the international scene than his German counterpart, the Dutch prime minister has distinguished himself recently with his uncompromising approach to the rise of the populist FvD part, led by Thierry Baudet, calling on Dutch voters to reject the party at the European ballot box. Rutte has had a solid track record in politics and has earned a reputation for being open and direct. A year ago, a video showing him mopping up a coffee he spilled in the parliament entryway while being applauded by the cleaning staff did the rounds on social media and burnished a down-to-earth image which has seen him maintain a high popularity rating, despite his somewhat radical economic policies.
After beginning his career in the early 90s at Unilever, he joined the government in July 2002 as secretary for social affairs and employment, having made a name for himself as national chair of the JOVD, the youth organization of the VVD. Two year later he was appointed secretary for education, culture and science, eventually taking over leadership of the VVD parliamentary party in 2006. In 2010 his party won an historic general election victory and the new leader of the Netherlands was charged with forming a coalition government with the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. Over the next number of years, he earned a reputation for economic austerity, yet also innovation. He set up circular economy hotspots around the country and set about introducing a national minimum wage. A committed European who wants to see the bloc ‘speak with one voice’ when dealing with world powers – beginning with Russia – Rutte has not hidden his priorities, which include respect for budgetary regulations and complete fiscal union across the EU.
It remains to be seen whether the strong man of Holland will accept the post if offered, given that the European Council president cannot have a dual national and EC mandate. As for Angela Merkel, who has announced that she will not be seeking a fifth term as Germany’s chancellor when her current stint comes to an end in 2021, she may view this as the perfect time to switch lanes.