Elections to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, in May will help determine who gets the European Commission's top job.
Credit: Frederick Florin

LISBON, Portugal — It's musical chairs time at the European Union.

In the coming months, the 28-nation bloc needs to choose new leaders to fill key posts running the world's biggest economic power.

The task is more urgent than usual because the continent is being forced to deal with the risk of war in Ukraine and the threat of revanchist Russia.

Domestically, the EU faces a lingering economic crisis that has left 26 million EU citizens out of work and bred disillusionment among voters increasingly tempted by political extremes.

Despite the challenges, the distribution of the EU's top jobs is rarely based on merit.

Instead it reflects a compromise between the 28 governments based on the need to balance gender with geography, the weight of small and large states, and the ambitions of Europe's political forces on the left and right.

Here's a who's who of those who could soon hold the destiny of the EU's 500 million citizens in their hands.


Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schultz

European Parliament President and SED (Social and Democrat) candidate Martin Schulz (R) with former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and EPP (European People Party) candidate (L). (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

Luxembourg's Juncker was until recently the EU's longest-serving prime minister. He is the official candidate of Europe's mainstream center-right political parties for president of the European Commission — the body that drafts EU law and runs the bloc's day-to-day business.

Schultz is the candidate of the center-left. He’s currently speaker of the European Parliament and first hit international headlines in 2003 when then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi responded to criticism from the German Social Democrat by likening him to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Both men are running slick media campaigns. In theory, the one whose political faction comes out on top in May's elections to the EU's parliament will get the job.

However, they also have to win over the backing of Europe's presidents and prime ministers. Schultz's lack of government experience could count against him, while Juncker has to overcome his small-country origins and persistent rumors of a drinking problem.

Critics say both are grey, Euro-insiders incapable of rekindling public enthusiasm for the EU. They are also both strong supporters of closer European unity. That might see them run afoul of more skeptical governments, such as Britain, which has a history of vetoing candidates it dislikes.


Radek Sikorski

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. (Marko Mumm/Getty Images)

Poland's foreign minister is the clear favorite to replace Britain's Catherine Ashton as the EU's foreign policy chief.

His credentials as an Oxford graduate and former war correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph should ensure British support despite his occasional criticism of British Euro-skepticism.

He won over Germany with a landmark 2011 speech that called on the EU's "indispensable nation" to save the euro — on top of his years of effort improving German-Polish relations. Eastern Europeans would also be happy to have one of their own in a top EU job for the first time.

Sikorski's Atlanticism has worried the French, but they've been soothed by Poland's support for French-led peacekeeping in Africa. Sikorski is also reportedly studying to add French to his Oxford-intoned English.

His pro-active role working with the French, British and Germans in seeking solutions to the Ukraine crisis should clinch the job for him — although some of the more dovish EU governments are wary of his outspoken approach toward Russia. The other main risk to Sikorski is if the highly respected Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, gets nominated for one of the other top EU jobs.

Sikorski is married to Pulitzer-winning US author Anne Applebaum.


Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Jyrki Katainen

Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt (L) and Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen of Finland (R). (Keld Navntoft/AFP/Getty Images)

Katainen shook up Finland's politics this month by announcing he's stepping down as prime minister to run for an EU job.

Thorning-Schmidt is Denmark's prime minister, who got in trouble back home for snapping a selfie photo with Barack Obama at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Both are contenders to become the president of the European Council — which would mean they would chair and set the agenda at EU summits, or possible compromise candidates if Juncker or Schultz are rejected for the European Commission post.

They are youthful and photogenic and come across as more relaxed than most European leaders.

Thorning-Schmidt's gender is also an advantage — the EU is under pressure to have more women in top positions.

Geography could count against them both however, since another Nordic — former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg — has just been nominated as NATO's next secretary general. That could be viewed as giving the northerners too much influence.

Thorning-Schmidt's chances could be doubly damaged because she and Stoltenberg are both from the center-left. Denmark's decision to keep out of the euro currency and the EU's defense policy will also handicap her bid.


Enrico Letta

Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta. (Vladimir Astapkovich/RIA Novosti/Getty Images)

There will be pressure for at least one of the EU's top jobs to go to a politician from southern Europe.

Letta, who spent a year as Italy's prime minister before being ousted by a party coup in February, is probably the best bet. He's a centrist enjoying support from left and right and who’s untainted by scandal or blame for Italy's financial woes. German Chancellor Angela Merkel likes him.

Letta could be headed for the EU summit chair — although critics will argue Italy would have an oversized representation since Mario Draghi still heads the powerful European Central Bank. The name of another Italian ex-PM, Mario Monti, also crops up, although Berlusconi is not in the running.

Other southern alternatives are in short supply. Former Greek Prime Minister Georges George Papandreou is fancied by some, but carries baggage from his country's financial crisis. Portugal's Jose Manuel Barroso is stepping down as European Commission president after 10 years, so it's unlikely to get another top post. Spain has no obvious candidates.


Pascal Lamy and Christine Lagarde

International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde (R), with Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Two French outsiders. Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, is many neutrals' favorite for the European Commission job, but says she doesn't want it. As a representative of the center-right, she'll struggle to get the support from France's Socialist government. Lamy is a former director general of the World Trade Organization, a Socialist and former EU trade commissioner. He's immensely experienced, but after years away from the frontlines of European politics, is seen by some as yesterday's man.

Decisions will come after the European Parliament election in late May. That's one of the world's largest democratic events with 413 million eligible voters — although less than half bothered to turn out at the last vote in 2009.

British bookmaker Ladbrokes currently has Juncker as 4-5 favorite to become European Commission president, with odds of 2-1 on Schultz, 5-1 on Guy Verhofstadt — a former Belgian prime minister supported by liberal parties — with Lamy and Lagarde at 10-1.

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