Brexit has made household names of some of the EU’s leading players. Donald Tusk, the outgoing EU Council President, has been a vocal critic of Brexit. He is, in his words, a dreamer of a different outcome – but he also believes the deal on the table is the best and only one possible. Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, has equally ruled out any renegotiation.
The pair, who won friends and enemies on either side of the Brexit divide, are preparing to exit the stage. Politicians on both sides of the Channel will be wondering whether the new appointments to the EU's top jobs will alter the script.
After three days of gruelling talks, EU leaders announced their preferred choices for the EU’s top jobs. The first two will not require the approval of the European Parliament: Christine Lagarde of France, who will leave the International Monetary Fund, has been nominated for the European Central Bank, while Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel will head the European Council – the grouping of EU heads of state and government.
EU leaders also put forward German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a less familiar figure, for the role of European Commission President, and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell for High Representative. If Ursula von der Leyen secures the backing of MEPs, she will become the first woman to head the European Commission.
Of course, Brexit will not have been at the forefront of EU leaders’ minds when selecting candidates – after all, Prime Minister Theresa May was in the room. Rather, Eurozone reform and strengthening the EU’s borders will have dominated their thinking. EU countries are also reluctant to let Brexit dominate the agenda.
What’s more, the UK will not be negotiating with any of the new appointments on Brexit straightaway. The new European Commission Presidency starts on 1 November – after the UK’s current extension deadline – and Charles Michel will only take up his new role on 1 December. So if a new British prime minister is intent on renegotiation, he will still be negotiating with the current European Commission.
In any case, EU governments remain the most important players on Brexit – with the European Commission President and his/her Chief Brexit Negotiator acting under strict joint guidelines from national governments. The power play will not change: the European Commission will not become one player among 28, but instead will continue to act on behalf of the 27 member states. So both this Commission and its successor have limited flexibility to negotiate a new deal unless member states agree.
Similarly, the role of Charles Michel – who, as Belgian Prime Minister, is thought to have been one of the most vocal EU leaders against granting the UK a further extension – is to find a common position within the European Council. He can certainly put forward suggestions, but he will not have the final say. His role will be to build bridges where he can.
Brexit will continue to be a challenge for the EU, irrespective of whether the UK leaves with a deal or not on 31 October. Charles Michel has sat in the European Council and is widely respected for his ability to find compromises in tricky situations at home – this is important, as trade and security discussions with the UK have not begun yet and it is very likely that member states’ unity will be tested. It will be up to Charles Michel to secure a new mandate from EU countries for future talks, and hard choices will need to be made –including the kind of access the EU is ready to grant the UK to its market or the strength of future security arrangements. His ability to find compromise will be essential.
Meanwhile, the new European Commission will lead the negotiations with the UK on behalf of EU countries. It is unlikely that the Commission President will play this role, and EU leaders could decide to keep the role of Chief Brexit Negotiator – currently Michel Barnier. Important EU portfolios are still up for grabs too, including the EU Commissioner for Trade, Internal Market and Competition. Ursula Von der Leyen will have closely followed the Brexit debate as a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, her challenge will be to pick a team that will be up to the Brexit task. At least one other member of that team will have had direct experience of Brexit negotiations: Josep Borrell, who was also a former MEP, played a key role in securing an agreement with the UK over Gibraltar.
In the short term, however, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen will have little chance to shape the EU’s response to the Brexit challenge. In the months ahead, their ability to forge consensus and strike compromise could well prove incredibly valuable if progress is to be made.