May 28, 2019: European leaders descend on Brussels on Tuesday to launch the hunt for a new generation of top EU officials in the wake of elections that shook up traditional alliances.
The key job to be filled is that of president of the European Commission, the union's powerful chief executive, a five-year post currently held by Jean-Claude Juncker.
Under EU treaty law, the European Council of 28 national leaders nominates a commission president, then the new 751-member parliament ratifies their choice. But the procedure, while seemingly straightforward, masks a complex power struggle between rival states and ideological blocs and between the leaders and parliament itself.
Juncker's deputy and the centre-left challenger for the top job, former Dutch minister Frans Timmermans, compares the ruthless intrigue to “Game of Thrones”.
And the game kicks off on Tuesday, when European Council president Donald Tusk hosts the EU leaders for a summit dinner in Brussels to lay out the ground rules.
Many in Brussels argue that the European project is best served by a “political commission” headed by a president with a mandate from the trans-national parliament.
But most of the leaders think the union's legitimacy derives from its member states and that the Council should be able to pick one of their own, someone with leadership experience.
The results of the EU elections did not strengthen parliament's hand — except perhaps for the boost of the larger than expected voter turnout.
While a threatened surge of Eurosceptic and far-right populist parties was contained, the pro-Europe center was fragmented, with liberals and Greens gaining ground.
In previous years, a coalition of the socialist S&D and the conservative EPP was able to wield a majority. Now they cannot govern without the liberal ALDE or the Greens.
And this complicates their choice of a “spitzenkandidat” — or lead candidate.
As lead candidate of the EPP, which lost ground but remains the largest voting unit, Bavarian conservative Manfred Weber thinks he should lead the Commission.