BRUSSELS — The European Union is one of the most complex political experiments in history, with nearly half a billion voters in 28 member countries, glued together with thousands of laws, regulations and processes. That work is done largely through four institutions: the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank.
Getting the top job at one of these institutions, tasked with making policy out of cacophony in the bloc, is a singularly political process. On Thursday and Friday, the heads of the 28 European Union member states are convening in Brussels to make a first stab at the selection, a twice-a-decade exercise that is never smooth.
While guided by some principles, the process is ultimately deeply political, with heads of government promoting candidates who share their nationality or ideology for the coveted roles.
They will very likely need to meet again before filling the leadership posts. But what do all these presidents do?
The European Commission president is the top bureaucrat.
The European Commission is the administrative branch of the European Union. It’s the locomotive that keeps the wheels of the institution turning, and most of its 32,000 staff members are career bureaucrats.
At the highest level, these officials can serve longer and have a greater effect on Europeans’ lives than many elected politicians ever will. They control billions of euros, and their reach extends to all aspects of policy.
The head of the institution — the European Commission president — is arguably the most powerful figure in Brussels, but there are no hard rules on who gets the post. The outgoing chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, is a former prime minister of Luxembourg. Mr. Juncker, a conservative, is a voracious political animal. President Trump once called him “nasty” and a “tough cookie” — but he has also said Mr. Juncker was “the kind of guy I want negotiating for me.”
His replacement, who will need approval from the European Parliament, is set to take office on Nov. 1.
The European Council parses what the nations want.
The European Council is the branch that pools together the heads of government of the 28 member states, who meet regularly. Depending on the mood, the council becomes interventionist, especially when national governments believe the European Commission has run off course.
The Council’s president is an appointed agenda-setter and a broker of deals over a raft of issues within the fragmented conclave.
Donald Tusk, the current president, is a former prime minister of Poland and the author of some memorable tweets. He once told President Trump that the United States and Europe should “Make trade, not war.”
Think of this role as, at best, a deal-broker, and at worst, a kindergarten teacher trying to break up spats between world leaders. The president is elected by a majority of the European Council, and serves a two-and-a-half year term, which is renewable once.
The European Parliament provides a dose of democracy.
The European Parliament is the only directly elected body in the European Union’s constellation of institutions. Europeans went to the polls last month to choose the 751 lawmakers who will sit in the Parliament.
The election outcome pointed to a politically fragmented Europe, with no mainstream ideological grouping winning a controlling majority, and more fringe groups and newer groups gaining seats. The nominee for European Commission president will need parliamentary approval, meaning the configuration of the Parliament, where coalition building is underway, will inform the result.
Often derided as being little more than a talking shop or a place for political has-beens, the European Parliament is nonetheless the only forum of open debate in the Brussels establishment. The members also elect the Parliament’s own president.
The European Central Bank manages the euro.
The European Central Bank sets monetary policy and regulates banks for the 19 member states that use the euro. Based in Frankfurt rather than Brussels, the bank has a critical role in navigating economic crises, much as the Federal Reserve does in the United States. It sets the benchmark interest rate for all eurozone member states and issues bank notes in the eurozone.
In times of turmoil, like the financial crisis that began in 2009, the European Central Bank can (and did) save the day. Its current president is the sardonic, unflappable Italian Mario Draghi, a career central banker. The central bank president serves an eight-year, nonrenewable term, and the appointment is not subject to parliamentary approval.
The presidents have almost always been men.
Political affiliation and national origin play a big role in the leadership selection process. The European Commission has been headed by conservatives for a decade, and large areas of Europe are at risk of feeling left out if someone from their region is not appointed to a top job. But one group has rarely been represented in the four main leadership roles: women.
The bloc is finally beginning to grapple with the fact that, other than two European Parliament presidents, its leaders have always been men.
The cause has been particularly central to liberals. Among the top contenders for European Commission president is the bloc’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, who has levied billions of dollars in fines against tech firms like Apple, Google and Facebook.
Diplomats in Brussels say extra attention will be paid to finally righting this imbalance, but the task could prove tricky.