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Nicolas who? Socialists close in on challenger to take on Ursula von der Leyen

Nicolas who? Socialists close in on challenger to take on Ursula von der Leyen

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Europe’s socialists are on course to pick a relatively unknown European commissioner to take on Ursula von der Leyen at the EU election.

Nicolas Schmit, the 70-year-old EU commissioner for jobs and social rights, is the front-runner to become lead candidate (so-called Spitzenkandidat) for the European socialists, three officials briefed on the decision said.  

Schmit is the only official candidate for the role so far and is backed by the two most powerful groups within the Party of European Socialists. The secretary-general of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Kevin Kühnert, said at a press conference on Monday that his party will back Schmit. The Spanish socialists of PSOE will also back the Luxembourgish politician, a PSOE official said.

Reacting to the SPD’s decision to support Schmit, one lawmaker from the Socialists & Democrats group in the EU Parliament who, like others in this piece, was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said: “Then there are no other candidates.”

The S&D are on course to once again be the second-largest group after the European election in June. The center-right European People’s Party is set to remain the largest political group. While the EPP’s von der Leyen still has to announce whether she will run for a second term, she is widely expected to do exactly that and be the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, and she would be a powerful opponent for Schmit

The Spitzenkandidat system was set up in 2014 in a bid to democratize EU elections, allowing European political parties to publicly present their top candidates for key positions such as Commission president. Despite that, it ultimately remains up to EU heads of state and government in the European Council to choose who they want for the job — as they did in 2019 with von der Leyen.

A lack of heavy hitters

The European center-left has had trouble rallying around a candidate to take on von der Leyen, especially since Frans Timmermans, the former European Commission first vice president and socialist heavyweight, left Brussels to return to the Netherlands.

The Commission’s other socialist big hitter, Maroš Šefčovič, is relatively unknown outside of Brussels and, more importantly, hails from Slovakia — and the Party of European Socialists recently suspended Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party after it went into government with a far-right party.

In the European Parliament, there were no clear-cut candidates for the job either. Katarina Barley, a former German justice minister, is a difficult option as it’s unlikely that a German (von der Leyen) would be replaced as Commission president by someone from the same country.

Iratxe García, a Spanish MEP who is the leader of the Socialists and Democrats faction in Parliament, said last week that she believed there will not be two candidates for the position. 

“We have plenty of good politicians, both in the Commission as in the Parliament,” said one socialist staffer in the European Parliament. “But if you think around about a profile who is well-known across Europe and can explain Europe outside the bubble, then the conversation falls flat.”

In his motivation letter to become the socialists’ lead candidate, seen by POLITICO, Schmit argues that his experience as jobs commissioner and his past experience in Luxembourgish politics provided him with “solid insight and hands-on knowledge in both national and European politics.” He also stressed that his “personal engagement will be driven by my strong political belief as well as by the optimism of the will.”

Iratxe García said last week that she believed there will not be two candidates for the position | Julien Warnand/EFE via EPA

One of the officials stressed that while Schmit may be an unknown figure outside Brussels, the Luxembourgish official’s political clout and experience could be an asset for the socialists in negotiations on the EU’s top jobs after the European election. The socialists, who have traditionally claimed the job of EU foreign policy chief, are now expected to get the post of European Council president, currently held by the liberal Belgian Charles Michel.

A spokesperson for the Party of European Socialists said that the nomination process ends on January 17 — meaning there is time for another candidate to challenge Schmit — and that names will be made public once the candidates have been validated, adding: “We have a process, and we have to respect that process.”

The European socialists will hold their election congress in Rome on March 2. 

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