(Bloomberg) — As European leaders prepare for another round of horse-trading in Brussels this week, one candidate is emerging from the sidelines that could fit the bill to become the bloc’s top executive.
Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s antitrust chief, is increasingly seen as a viable option to lead the European Commission, not only generating the least opposition among the 28 member states, but also ticking off many of the right boxes, according to government officials in several European capitals. Deciding on the next president of the commission would fill a key piece of the puzzle for the bloc’s top jobs, which also include pending appointments for a successor of Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank and Donald Tusk as chair of the meetings of EU leaders.
Known for her tough stance against big business, the Danish career politician may get French President Emmanuel Macron’s tacit backing, and would address demands for gender and geographical mix in top positions, according to some of the officials. Angela Merkel, who nominally still backs Manfred Weber as her candidate, also wouldn’t oppose Vestager, they said.
Last month’s European Parliament elections “voted for change,” Vestager told a Free University of Brussels audience on Tuesday. “Maybe we should try something new, try: woman,” she said since “it’s long overdue for a woman to hold” the commission president job.
By contrast, Weber faces considerable resistance in Paris and has put forward a lackluster bid. Even some members of the EPP, the European group of center-right parties he represents, see Weber as a poor fit lacking experience, while two officials in European capitals cited his lack of command of the French language as a drawback.
The other big name formally in the race with the backing of the center-left is Frans Timmermans. The Dutchman, who’s currently principal vice president of the commission, has upset many Eastern European countries by going after Poland and Hungary over their democratic standards, and would most likely not get the necessary support from conservatives in the European Parliament, which can veto any nomination from the bloc’s leaders.
“Vestager looks the easiest consensus candidate to me,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute For International Economics in Washington D.C. “By virtue of being the first female commission president, Vestager would give an important signal of ‘change at the top of the EU,’ imbuing it with renewed political legitimacy.”
To be sure, there’s still a laundry list of obstacles for Vestager. Part of the German government is still unhappy over her role in shooting down the planned merger between the rail units of Siemens AG (DE:) and Alstom (PA:) SA. Merkel, part of whose party sees Vestager as a disguised Macron candidate, would want something in exchange for giving up on Weber, perhaps the placement of a German to head the ECB.
Beyond Berlin, Europe’s Christian Democrats are also wary of handing the EU’s top executive post to a liberal candidate, instead of one of their own members, after their group won the European elections, according to one leader of an EPP member-party.
Then there’s Italy’s fractious populist government, dominated by Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini who is on a collision course with the Commission over the country’s debt mountain. Rome has yet to decide which candidate to back for the EU jobs.
In his meeting with EU Parliament leaders on Tuesday evening in Brussels, Tusk said it would be very difficult for national leaders to reach an agreement at their June 20-21 gathering on a nominee for Commission president, according to an official familiar with the exchange.
At the same time, Tusk held out hope for a deal among the government heads by the time the new EU Parliament starts business on July 2, the official said on the condition of anonymity because the meeting on the sixth floor of the assembly’s main building in the Belgian capital was behind closed doors.
Tusk also signaled that the pool from which national leaders can propose a new commission chief extends beyond the official candidates put forward by Europe’s main political parties, while he indicated that choosing from among them could facilitate an endorsement of the pick by the EU Parliament, the person said.
Narrowing the field to official candidates would potentially boost Vestager’s chances and kill those of the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier or World Bank chief executive Kristalina Georgieva, the names of whom have also been floated. Unlike the three main candidates, Georgieva and Barnier didn’t campaign for the job, and parachuting them in a top post could make a mockery of a process backed by many European lawmakers and Merkel herself.
Vestager is one of the most visible EU commissioners thanks to her crackdown on big-tech behemoths and on corporate tax evasion, at a time when establishment politicians face a popular backlash over inequality. She fined Google (NASDAQ:) 1.49 billion euros the day before she started campaigning as one of the Liberal party’s candidates.
U.S. President Donald Trump too weighed in with a few remarks on her high-profile cases.
And yet she ran a fairly low-profile campaign for the EU job and at one point this month had to field a question as to whether she was still in the race.
Today, her prospects look different.
“She could be acceptable to the EU Parliament and to the heads of state,” said Carsten Brzeski, ING chief economist. “Of all the candidates she stands the best chances for the top commission post.”
(Updates with Vestager comments, outcome of Tusk’s meeting.)