Home » António Costa’s downfall spells trouble for socialist hopes of EU top job

António Costa’s downfall spells trouble for socialist hopes of EU top job

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António Costa is out as prime minister of Portugal — and that’s a problem for Europe’s socialists in their quest for an EU top job.

The center-left had its hopes pinned on Costa getting a powerful role in Brussels as part of the great carving up of senior roles after the 2024 European elections. Who should replace him will be a hot topic at a party congress in the Spanish city of Málaga on Friday and Saturday.

Costa was the socialists’ pick to succeed Charles Michel as European Council president from November 2024, when the Belgian’s time in the role ends (and the rules say he cannot serve another term). The socialists — who are on course to once again be the second largest group after the European elections — have their sights set on the Council presidency after having one of their ranks fill the post of EU top diplomat, first with Italy’s Federica Mogherini and then Spain’s Josep Borrell. 

But that plan fell apart this week when Costa submitted his resignation after police raided his official residence. The country’s attorney general confirmed that Costa was being investigated under a corruption probe.

Costa has not been found guilty of anything and he could still end up claiming a job in Brussels. It wouldn’t be the first time that a top EU official had been appointed after being involved in a scandal. 

In July 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker was elected European Commission president a year after he tendered his resignation as Luxembourg’s prime minister in a scandal involving the nation’s secret services, which were alleged to have indulged in misconduct on his watch. His successor as Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, was engulfed in a scandal when she was German defense minister, with allegations that lucrative contracts from her ministry were awarded to outside consultants without proper oversight. 

But the Portuguese legal system is notoriously slow —  the corruption case launched against Costa’s socialist predecessor, José Sócrates, in 2014 is still ongoing — and few expect any kind of clarity on Costa’s situation within a year.

The Qatargate scandal may also have raised the bar of public opinion when it comes to tolerance of European politicians linked to corruption cases.  

“If he [Costa] thinks that he cannot be prime minister while this is ongoing, then obviously he cannot be European Council president while it is ongoing,” said Green MEP Daniel Freund. The German lawmaker said the job of European Council president is a “way more powerful” role so “that office needs to be protected even more from any reputational risk.”

Call Pedro Sánchez! No, wait…

The most obvious alternative to Costa was Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, who was rumored to be a top contender for the NATO secretary-general post last June, when he seemed destined to be voted out in Spain.

Improbably, Sánchez emerged from the summer’s elections with a narrow path to remain in office, and on Thursday he secured the crucial support he needed to stay in power as Spain’s prime minister from the Catalan separatist Junts party.

The 15 weeks of tortuous horse-trading with other leftist parties — and, critically, an offer of an amnesty to Catalan separatist plotters — that Sánchez has gone through is a likely preview of the challenges he’ll face during the next term.

Pedro Sánchez, Prime Minister of Spain and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission | Marcelo del Pozo/Getty Images

His minority government will need the support of a vast array of regional and separatist parties with wildly different philosophies in order to pass legislation.

“It’s going to be very difficult for that government to pass any laws,” said political scientist Pablo Simón. “The political dynamics are going to be extremely complex.”

With a fractious coalition, and facing constant attack from a right-wing opposition that openly questions his legitimacy to govern, Sánchez might be tempted by a more comfortable, high-profile post in Brussels.

“Right now Spain is in a good position internationally: After Germany, Spain is the most important EU country in which a socialist is in power,” said Simón. “With Costa out of the game, who’s to say what Sánchez’s future could hold?”

Sánchez’s exit would undoubtedly throw Spain’s left-wing into chaos, as there is no clear successor. But given that the opportunity for productive governance seems slim, he might not dwell too much on the mess he’d leave behind.

The B-list

Other names of current or former socialist prime ministers are less obvious contenders for top jobs in Brussels. 

Former Finnish leader Sanna Marin, one of the most well-known socialist faces, has faced criticism after joining the Tony Blair Institute as a strategic counselor (she has also signed with an entertainment and talent management company).  

One EU official, who was granted anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publicly, described Marin as a “troublemaker,” suggesting that she is not the right fit for the job. Another Nordic name, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, could have trouble defending her country’s tough immigration policies to other European socialists. 

Frans Timmermans, the former European Commission socialist heavyweight, has only just left Brussels to return to the Netherlands. If he wins this month’s election, he’ll be Dutch prime minister and unlikely to want to leave, and if he fails, he’ll have never been a prime minister, which is an informal criterion for the Council top job.

One name that has circulated in the corridors of Brussels for a long time is that of the former president of the European Central Bank, and ex-Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi.

The man seen as having saved the euro has now been tasked by von der Leyen with preparing a report on how the EU can deal with its eroding global competitiveness, which could strengthen his profile even more.

Yet he’s considered a long shot for many reasons. 

Since the role of full-time president of the European Council was introduced in 2009, the job has always been given to a party-affiliated politician (first Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, then Poland’s Donald Tusk and now Michel) — and Draghi was a technocrat and then an independent prime minister. It would prove difficult for the socialists to appoint someone who doesn’t belong to their party. On top of that, it remains unclear whether the center-right government of Giorgia Meloni would support Draghi.  

For other former socialist prime ministers, such as Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni and Sweden’s Stefan Löfven, a lot of time has passed since they left the European Council table — and they could face similar problems securing the backing of their center-right governments. 

Eddy Wax and Jakob Hanke Vela contributed reporting.