Ursula von der Leyen

Brussels Gripped By ‘We’re Hiring’ Fever As Top EU, NATO Posts Up For Grabs

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This year features a merry-go-round of high-level positions in the upper echelons of the European Union, as well as NATO, and Brussels is awash with rumors as to who will taking up the posts.

Four big political jobs are up for grabs in 2024: the European Commission and European Council presidencies, now occupied by Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, respectively, as well as the bloc’s foreign policy chief post, held by Josep Borrell for the past five years.

Elsewhere in the Belgian capital, Jens Stoltenberg is vacating the post of NATO secretary-general after a decade at the helm. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has thrown his hat into the ring for this, and it could well be time for an Eastern European to lead.

Two EU summits in June, already penciled in for June 17 and 27, featuring the 27 EU heads of state and governments, will decide the three posts in closed-door negotiations. It’s a complicated jigsaw in which candidates will be selected that reflect a balance of gender, political affiliation (often divided between pan-European political parties representing the center right, center left, and liberal) and geography, even though the EU member states’ compass is at times blurred.

The European Commission president usually hails from the political group that wins the most votes in the parliamentary elections taking place across the bloc on June 6-9. In the last four elections, this has been the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), and polls indicate they’re on course to win this time as well. Their lead candidate, crowned at the EPP congress in Bucharest last week, is Von der Leyen. Logic would dictate that she’s a shoo-in for another five years heading the European Commission.

On paper, the leader of NATO is separate from the EU posts. But considering that 23 out of 27 EU member states also belong to the military alliance, and that the NATO secretary-general should be European, the two organizations are essentially fishing in the same talent pool.

Sources at NATO say they want the decision to be made in April, well before the NATO Washington summit in July and, crucially, well before the process becomes “too entangled” in the EU’s own recruitment timeline.

Only a few weeks ago, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States (known collectively as the “Quad”), as well as up to 17 other countries, largely in the West, rallied behind outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Considered a safe pair of hands with lots of experience, well-liked in Washington, and famously adept at dealing with former U.S. President Donald Trump, he seemed a decent, if perhaps uninspiring, pick.

Iohannis’s bid could represent a welcome change: hearing the voice of Eastern, and not just Western, Europe.

Eastern Europe’s Turn

“Eastern” here is far from a coherent geographical or political concept, but it covers the countries of the former Soviet bloc or ex-Yugoslavia that joined the EU (and NATO) in the past 25 years: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia (and, additionally for NATO, Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia).

No NATO secretary-general has ever come from any of these countries. In 2019, when the EU last picked the three heads, the eastern flank was completely overlooked. In fact, the only “easterner” that ever has held a high position in Brussels was current Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who was president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019.

There have already been three Dutch NATO secretary-generals. The Netherlands has struggled to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, a NATO goal for over a decade and something many Eastern countries, including Iohannis’s Romania, have managed.

Rutte, while being supportive of Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, is considered a “softie” on Russia. His support for Gazprom’s Nordstream 2 is a case in point. Many Easterners, on the other hand, have long warned about the danger of a belligerent Kremlin.

Now, they’ve been proven right.

NATO sources say they believe Rutte will still win. It’s hard to get around “the Quad,” and they don’t seem to be budging. Some view Iohannis’s move as “desperate” and “last-ditch,” and it has stoked fears that the selection process might drag on for months.

Others were rather bemused at his 10-point plan — presented in Politico on March 13 — that included things the military alliance is already doing.

Some diplomats from Eastern countries say they have no opinion on either candidate. The question ultimately is whether Iohannis sourced his popularity before committing to run.

Two Other Factors

The first of two other important factors is unanimity. All 32 NATO allies need to be onboard. Hungary has already indicated it’s against Rutte, especially after countless spats between The Hague and Budapest over Hungarian rule of law.

Turkey hasn’t voiced a preference, but Ankara’s had its own issues with Rutte, notably from Turkish efforts a few years back to hold political rallies in the Netherlands that resulted in The Hague barring Turkish officials from arriving.

As one NATO official recently told me, “Turkey and Hungary showed with Sweden’s NATO accession that they are willing to go the extra mile and more to get what they want.”

But is it Iohannis they want or just anyone but Rutte? Or could this be paving the way for a dark-horse candidate yet to be revealed?

A PR Move For Iohannis?

The talk in Brussels is also about whether Iohannis is running for NATO secretary-general to get himself into the arena for an EU post.

Like Von der Leyen, Iohannis belongs to the EPP. If she gets the commission presidency, it’s unlikely another EPP candidate could get anything else. The center left (called S&D in Europe) will likely finish second in the European parliament election and demand the council or the foreign policy job. The liberals (Renew) or the more conservative and Euroskeptic ECR group could also stake out positions depending on the June vote.

Most of the other Easterners who might be gunning for EU jobs belong to the EPP, too. There’s Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic; the Bulgarian managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva; Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski; and his Lithuanian and Latvian counterparts, Gabrielius Landsbergis and Krisjanis Karins, respectively.

Outside the EPP, we have Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, belonging to the liberals, which could see a catastrophic European election. Kallas appears to be overlooked for the NATO job, at least for now. Then there are the Brussels Slovak stalwarts Miroslav Lajcak and Maros Sefcovic, but both are associated with Slovak Prime Minister Robet Fico, whose party has been suspended by the center-left S&D for its pro-Moscow stance.

Is Iohannis plotting a coup against Von der Leyen? She is widely considered a successful commission president, especially in her steadfast support for Kyiv. But people in Brussels also have some negative things to say about her: Some member states worry she’s made the commission too powerful and that she runs it with an iron fist, not letting other commissioners shine.

Then there is the issue with the European Parliament. The candidate for commission president needs to be approved by a majority of members of the house. Last time, Von der Leyen scraped by with eight votes. It might be even tighter this time.

Maybe that means it’s time for a consensus candidate? Maybe this candidate could be Iohannis.