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European Union watchers are bracing themselves for the political excitement of the next seven weeks. All major political parties will nominate their candidate for the European Commission Presidency, the key executive post, with the European People’s Party going last at its Dublin conference on March 7. The Greens are organizing debates this week between their four candidates. In the liberal-democrat race Olli Rehn just pulled the plug on his presidential ambitions in favour of Guy Verhofstadt who is now certain of the nomination. The social-democrats will confirm Martin Schulz, the current Parliament President, as their candidate at the end of February.

European Parliament elections in May 2014

European Parliament elections in May 2014

Once all nominations are done, candidates and their parties will have two and a half months to spell out their manifestos to the electorate of the 28 countries in the run-up to the May elections. All of this is a first for the EU, in an attempt to stir up more debate and personalize clashes between different policy visions.

No doubt this will lead to promises for change. However, once in office in the Autumn, the new Commission President will face heavy constraints to change the policy course of Europe. The budget is fixed for the period 2014-2020, so the next Commission will have to execute what was already decided. It is unclear what leeway exists to change the Memoranda of Understanding signed between programme countries and the Troika, where the Commission is but one of three member largely working on behalf of the group of Euro-countries. Those Memoranda contain the most important economic policy decisions for the countries concerned, and express what policy recipe the Euro-zone sees as most fit for cleaning up public debt.

More broadly, public spending parameters for Member States are set in stone through new Treaties and EU legislation, and change looks hardly an option here. In dealing with banking policy and financial regulation, the current Commission has been instrumental for the adoption of an impressive set of legislation, leaving the next Commission in charge of implementation and possible adjustments, but again not radical change.

So one option could be to accept this policy inheritance and put the focus on things that are not being done enough today, such as European measures for getting capital into productive and green investments, particularly in countries that suffer economically, and developing new social solidarity tools that people in programme countries can recognize as explicit European support for their current difficulties. Beyond that the banking union will need to be deepened, global issues such as trade and environment are likely to be higher on the agenda than today, and new instruments will have to be developed for the governance of the Euro-zone economy.

It is by no means typical for the EU that leaders elected into office have to spend a lot of time dealing with policy commitments of the past. It is a myth to think that new brooms sweep clean after elections. The foreign policy of Obama since 2009 has been dominated by Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars his predecessor chose and managed. But changing policies decided in the past is much harder in the EU because of the number of veto players with a stake in established practices. The trick for political leadership is to avoid fighting decisions you disagreed with but that you cannot change. And focus on developing new instruments that can make a difference for what you want to achieve. On this front the EU may well have an advantage. As a political system it is always in flux, and with enough political will it finds ways to do new things via new Treaties or creative use of existing ones.