Slovakia's top post ambition

Maros Sefcovic served two terms as European commissioner and now asks for more

With less than eight months remaining before the 2019 European elections, battle for the next head of the Commission starts to intensify with new candidates presenting themselves as ready to step into Jean-Claude Juncker's boots. After centre-right Manfred Weber it was centre-left Maros Sefcovic who last week declared his candidacy with more expected to appear in the coming weeks.

“I realise it's a long and difficult process,” Slovak Sefcovic told reporters in Bratislava, making the most public bid to succeed Juncker next year. “I will do everything to get the support of Social- Democrat parties across the EU.” He clearly pointed out that he would would seek the nomination of the centre-left PES group in the European Parliament, and added that he would build his candidacy on steps to ease tensions between Western and Eastern EU Member States.

“I will do my best to use this process to put the spotlight on stronger industrial policy, a more assertive position of the EU in international trade and on understanding between new and old Member States,” he pointed out. The governments of Hungary and Poland in particular have been involved in a series of disputes with Brussels including over migration and judicial independence. Recently MEPs urged sanctions to be imposed on Hungary over breaching EU values.

Sefcovic said during his announcement that politicians needed to work to understand why more Europeans were responding to far-right messages, and seek to unite the states in the east, west, north and south of the bloc. “We have to get rid of barbed-wire fences in our minds,” he said, reminding his youth behind the Iron Curtain.

With centre-left parties performing poorly, Sefcovic would face an uphill struggle to get the job even if he wins the PES nomination, according to analysts. But as a member of Slovakia's ruling Smer party he benefits from the backing of his own country's government, while other possible centre-left candidates - Economy Commissioner Pierre Moscovici of France, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini of Italy, and Frans Timmermans from the Netherlands - are from countries where other parties hold political power.

Among other possible contenders widely cited in Brussels are EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, a left-leaning Danish liberal who also could not count on backing from her government at home. Whoever wins the PES nomination will struggle to secure backing by a majority of national leaders on the European Council.

Born in 1966, Sefcovic is a carrier diplomat and long-time Commission high official. Between 1985 and 1990, he studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and then served as Slovakia's diplomat in Zimbabwe, Canada and as ambassador to Israel. From 2004–2009 he was Slovakia's Permanent Representative to the European Union in Brussels.

Under Barroso, Sefcovic served as Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture & Youth from 2009 to 2010. In 2010, he was promoted to Vice President of the Commission, a role he served until 2014. His area of responsibility included the administration of the Commission as well, including management of some of the Commission's Internal Services; in particular consolidation of administrative reform, personnel and administration, European Schools and security.

Since 2014 Sefcovic serves as Vice President of the Commission for the Energy Union. In this role in July 2015, he brokered an agreement between fifteen countries from Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe to speed up the building of gas links, improve security of supply, reduce their reliance on Russia and develop a fully integrated energy market.

Entering the battle so early, however, may prove ineffective as Juncker's successor must be agreed by Member States leaders only after elections to the European Parliament next May depending on the results. Their nominee must also be confirmed by MEPs. The field of possible candidates is wide and the outcome hugely uncertain. But it's worth a try.

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