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EU’s top diplomat race gets very crowded

EU’s top diplomat race gets very crowded

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EU’s top diplomat race gets very crowded

BRUSSELS — Political heavyweights are vying to become the European Union’s next chief diplomat, seeing the role as a strategic opportunity to wield power as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine barrels into its third year.

The high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the European Commission chairs regular meetings of the EU’s 27 foreign, defense and development ministers, and represents the EU at G7 and G20 ministerial meetings. At the moment, the role is held by Spain’s Josep Borrell, who won’t be coming back.

But despite the grand title, critics say the job involves little power in practice. While national foreign ministers often play a crucial role, the EU relies less on the HRVP to get things done and instead leans on this person’s boss, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

An EU diplomat concurs. “What the EEAS [the EU’s diplomatic corps] needs is more money, better people and better HRVPs,” added the insider, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal thinking.

Still, several politicians from small member countries see the value of getting that job. Baltic countries, starting with Estonia, want to have a larger say on EU foreign policy, especially a tougher approach to future relations with Russia. Others close to the end of their domestic political careers want to prolong their position by moving into the EU machinery.

At a conference in Florence earlier this month, Borrell diplomatically avoided any question on who he thought was fit to fill his shoes, saying that it’s not his job “to pick out my successor.” 

With Borrell set to step down during the top jobs reshuffle in the wake of the EU election, several former heads of government have their eyes on the prize.

If the position does end up going to one of them, it will be the first time since the role was created in 2009 that the job will belong to a former head of government. The other difference with the past is that the job has always been in the hands of big countries (the U.K., Italy and Spain). The fact that this time it could well go to a smaller country is seen as a positive development by many diplomats since bigger states usually also have bigger agendas.

In the EU system, the most senior of the top jobs is Commission president and because the European People’s Party is expected to remain the largest group after the election, it will get that post. The socialists, as part of the current coalition and likely to finish second, will nominate a Council president. Renew, the other part of the current coalition, is expected to take the HRVP job.

Here are some of the names in the frame.

Kaja Kallas — Estonia

The Estonian PM is the most talked-about name in Brussels when it comes to this job.

Three French officials with direct knowledge of the talks on the future HRVP confirmed to POLITICO that Emmanuel Macron’s office has been eyeing Kallas to succeed Borrell. But all three also said the French president was keeping his options open.

“There’s a good understanding between Macron and Kallas, she’s well-liked and they’ve got similar points of view,” said an aide from Renew. The French president has energetically backed Kallas’ proposal to create a defense industry fund. 

“She’s clearly seen as a strong personality of the Renew group. She’s a strong voice who has an impact beyond her country,” he added. 

Kaja Kallas is the most talked-about name in Brussels when it comes to this job. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A senior Eastern European official, granted anonymity to share sensitive conversations, also said there was confirmation from Estonian counterparts about Macron’s preference for Kallas. “They said Macron gave his nod early this year,” the official said.

Kallas was in Paris for the French president’s conference on Ukraine aid in February and again in May for talks with Macron. During her most recent visit, she praised Macron’s speech on the future of Europe as “very, very good.”

But it’s far from a done deal.

EU members farther away from Russia have a widespread distrust of the Baltic region’s critical rhetoric on Russia. There is also a fear that Kallas would focus too exclusively on Russia, and not pay attention to the rest of the world. 

“I see the logic of giving an Eastern European a top job,” said a southern European diplomat, but “we need someone who talks also about Africa, or South America, and not just about Russia.”

Alexander De Croo — Belgium

The Belgian premier, who has been leading a diverse seven-party coalition, is unlikely to remain in office after the Belgian election on June 9. He has built a lot of goodwill with his counterparts in the European Council, and increased his international profile during the Belgian presidency of the Council of the EU. He has visited both China’s Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden

Alexander De Croo is unlikely to remain in office after the Belgian election on June 9. | Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

But he is far from the front-runner. First, it will be tricky for Belgium to nominate him as its European commissioner, given his party is expected to lose the election. Europe’s recent experience with a Belgian liberal, current European Council President Charles Michel, has not been great, and there is a feeling in the East that Benelux has had its fair share of top jobs in the past.

Sophie Wilmès — Belgium

A former Belgian prime minister and foreign minister, Wilmès’ name has started doing the rounds in connection with the HRVP role.

Wilmès stepped down from public office in 2022 to take care of her ill husband. She is running in the EU election, at the top of the list of the Francophone party Mouvement Réformateur. However, her main focus is on Belgian politics, and local officials expect her to use the European stage as a way to return to the domestic scene, potentially even returning as prime minister. Her past close relations with Michel could be a weakness when trying to land a top job in Brussels.

Xavier Bettel — Luxembourg

Many of the same concerns raised about the Belgians also apply to Bettel, the current Luxembourgish foreign minister. Jean-Claude Juncker, a predecessor of Bettel’s as Luxembourg’s PM, was president of the European Commission until 2019. Just as with De Croo, there are others in his country who are eying the commissioner post.

More importantly, European diplomats and officials fear Bettel may not be the most “diplomatic” person for the job, as he has a tendency to go off-script. 

European diplomats and officials fear Xavier Bettel may not be the most “diplomatic” person for the job. | Pozo/Getty Images

“He seems like a great guy to hang out for a beer with, but I doubt many around the table would entrust him with foreign affairs,” a senior EU diplomat said.

Radek Sikorski — Poland

The Polish foreign minister is widely believed to be eyeing a EU top job.

Sikorski, a favorite to be the EU’s first-ever defense commissioner, is also said to be open to other jobs such as enlargement commissioner or the HRVP.

Supporters say he’s shown himself to be an effective communicator, including during a February appearance at the United Nations when he debunked Russian disinformation.

But there’s a big hurdle facing the seasoned Polish politician: He comes from the EPP group, not Renew, meaning he’s unlikely to get the foreign policy gig if von der Leyen or another EPP politician takes the helm of the Commission.

Micheál Martin — Ireland

Also in the mix is Martin, the former taoiseach of Ireland. His Fianna Fáil party is a member of the Renew Europe group, and his party, which is in a coalition government in Dublin, has first dibs on naming the next Irish commissioner. Having led his party since 2011, and with a general election looming in Ireland, Martin could be eyeing a move to Brussels, though Ireland’s neutrality and lack of military support for Ukraine (even though the country has accepted one of the highest numbers of Ukrainian refugees per capita) could work against him.  

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