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Life after Ursula von der Leyen? Alternatives for next Commission president.

Thierry Breton

Why? He’s French. Breton told POLITICO last year that he had been a “Plan B” candidate to become European commissioner back in 2019 (he only got the gig after the first choice, Sylvie Goulard, was knocked out during confirmation hearings in the Parliament). He has strongly hinted that he’s open to becoming Plan B once again, should von der Leyen’s candidacy not pan out. As a former French finance minister, Breton has senior executive experience, and although he’s not from the EPP he does lean conservative. His track record as a former CEO who has put industrial policy back on the Commission agenda allows him to argue he should lead an EU executive that will be far more focused on competitiveness.

Breton has also emerged as von der Leyen’s highest-profile critic in the Brussels bubble. In an infamous tweet following her nomination as the EPP’s lead candidate, Breton noted that the Commission chief didn’t exactly have unanimous support within the EPP for a second term. He was also part of the group of commissioners who criticized her choice of Markus Pieper as the Commission’s SME envoy. And while a senior French official told POLITICO that Macron had been “furious” about the von der Leyen tweet, other French officials have since said that le président wasn’t so perturbed after all.

Why not? Breton has perhaps more enemies than friends in top EU circles, including within the Commission and among many EU countries, with many questioning his track record. His brazen self-promotion and reputation for talking before delivering has irked fellow Commissioners — chief among them Competition boss Margrethe Vestager, but also many of the staff and civil servants he was supposed to work with.

A vicious (and anonymous!) article published in French outlet Atlantico described Breton as “the worst French commissioner in 30 years,” suggesting he has rivals determined to undermine him. In addition, he isn’t EPP, and the controversy around his stint as head of French tech firm Atos is seen as a major liability for any potential confirmation by the European Parliament.

A surprise

Why? The protracted horse-trading among political groupings over European top jobs after EU elections is always full of surprises. Back in 2019, no one would have bet on von der Leyen’s becoming Commission president; Brussels could well be surprised by a candidate they’ve never heard of or met before.

Why not? We have no clue who it might be (or else it wouldn’t be a surprise).

Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting from Paris. Šejla Ahmatović and Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting from Brussels.