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The worst Euro crop

In the midst of a devastating economic crisis, European institutions have been going through the biggest downturn in terms of political leadership qualities in living memory

If everything goes as predicted, the next president of the European Commission will be the one heading the slate of the party most voted in the European elections of May 2014. For the first time, the main political groups (People's Party or conservative, Socialist, Liberal, Green and options further to the left) are to publicize their candidates before the elections, and for the first time, the heads of government will be obliged by the Treaties, not to automatically appoint the winner, but at least to "take it into account" in designating the new president of the Commission.

For the moment, it seems clear that the Socialist candidate will be the German Martin Schulz, 62, a man with no academic degree, but a noted specialist in European history, who ran a bookshop before entering municipal politics and is now speaker of the European Parliament. It is also almost certain that the Liberal runner will be the Belgian Guy Verhofstadt, 60, a law-degree holder who practically never practiced because he entered politics early (he was called Baby Thatcher), becoming Belgium's prime minister. Many think it probable that the conservative EPP Group's candidacy will fall to Michel Barnier, 62, an elegant Frenchman and business school graduate, who is Interior Market commissioner and his country's former Foreign Minister.

According to the opinion polls, the EPP currently enjoys most support Europe-wide, so that Barnier looms as the likely successor to the also conservative José Manuel Durão Barroso. Yet we cannot rule out the possibility that the experienced Schulz may turn the odds around and forge alliances that will take him to Brussels. Be it Barnier or Schulz, the big news will be precisely the departure of Durão Barroso as head of the Commission. The Portuguese politician will surely go down in EU history as having constituted a calamity for the institution he represented. Under his mandate the Commission has shrunk into near-irrelevance in EU politics. An unmitigated failure - though no doubt his docility will bring him personal benefits in the form of a job in some international agency.

It is urgent for the people who vote in European elections to think seriously about the possible candidates

As well as the Commission presidency, there will have to be a successor to Herman Van Rompuy (the colorless Flemish politician who was designated first president of the European Council has served his principles faithfully, never having done anything worthy of notice), and to Catherine Ashton, the Union's high representative for Foreign Affairs, another prodigy of invisibility or the worst European "foreign minister" that the long-suffering people of the EU could imagine. As successors, the names in the air are those of the Polish minister Radek Sikorski, 50, who studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, worked as a journalist, and defended positions close to those of the US conservatives. Or of the Swede Carl Bildt, 64, who, according to some biographies, never took his degree in law, but was the first conservative politician in decades to become prime minister in Sweden, and was a very active foreign minister.

What all this means is that, in the middle of the worst possible economic crisis, these European institutions have been going through the biggest downturn in terms of political leadership qualities that anyone can remember, all these posts having been occupied by personalities devoid of character and convictions. They have been the worst crop in decades and have done considerable damage to the European project. Change is desperately needed. It is urgent for the people who vote in European elections to think seriously about the possible candidates; because by now we have learned, from the way the results so often affect us, that those who pull strings in the EU pull strings that affect our lives, our future and our rights.

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