The EU’s most powerful Germans (2023)

This article is part of a special report: Berlin in Brussels.

The election of Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president was seen by many in Brussels as the naked confirmation of Germany’s political heft in the European Union. The truth is that the country has plenty of other arrows in its quiver.

As Berlin prepares to take on the six-month presidency of the Council of the EU, POLITICO has compiled a list of the most powerful Germans in the EU, grading them according to their importance in Brussels and at home.

Michael Clauss and Susanne Szech-Koundouros

The EU’s most powerful Germans (1)

Photo via German Permanent Representation to the EU

The German ambassador to the EU and his deputy are poised to take on a prominent role during the presidency. As chairs of the so-called Coreper meetings of ambassadors, they’ll be well-placed to push for Berlin’s priorities as they seek compromises among EU countries.

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Clauss, a passionate long-distance runner, will need plenty of endurance in the upcoming marathon negotiations on the EU budget and the other hot political files that will cross his desk, including foreign policy, trade, economic and financial issues, and Brexit. The native Hanoverian is known as an experienced deal-maker and is no stranger to the challenges and pitfalls of a Council presidency (this one will be his third).

His previous job as German ambassador to Beijing will also likely prove useful, as Chancellor Angela Merkel has pinpointed China as a foreign policy priority for the next six months.

The policy areas that will fall to his deputy — such as health and transport — are no less sensitive in the age of coronavirus. Szech-Koundouros, who has an extensive background in European affairs as well as economic and energy policy, also knows that Brussels is for lovers: In 1993, when she was posted in the city as a German attaché, she met her husband, a Greek diplomat, at a Council working party.Pro tip for diplomats preparing for a long Council negotiation with Szech-Koundouros: Bring chocolate!

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Björn Seibert and Jens Flosdorff

The EU’s most powerful Germans (2)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her Head of Cabinet Björn Seibert | Dati Bendo/European Union

The Commission president’s two closest confidants have already weathered several crises at her side in the German defense ministry. But Brussels is a different game from Berlin, and Seibert and Flosdorff — von der Leyen’s chief of Cabinet and communication adviser, respectively — have had to learn to play by a new set of rules. Not to mention deal with skepticism about the strong German flavor of von der Leyen’s top team.

Many in the Commission have come to appreciate the duo’s typically German organizational skills. Seibert, who runs von der Leyen’s office together with French official Stéphanie Riso, has gained a reputation as a talented tactician and organizer (he previously taught security studies at Harvard).

Flosdorff, meanwhile, has managed von der Leyen’s communications since 2004 and is closely involved in her social media presence and the planning of press conferences or interviews.

More than perhaps anyone else in her team, these two have the president’s ear.

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Michael Hager

The EU’s most powerful Germans (3)

European Union photo

The Cabinet chief for Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovkis is the man with his fingers in every pie.

In his current role, Hager — a studied Japanologist, political scientist and historian — relays the center-right European People’s Party’s (EPP) priorities to the Commission and keeps a close watch on the other two power-hungry executive vice presidents, Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager.

A former chief of staff to ex-Commissioner Günther Oettinger, Hager has a reputation as a good tactician and a powerful networker in the Commission. He’s also an important point person for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and keepsan eye on Commissioner for the Economy Paolo Gentiloni. When the Italian in March publicly endorsed Rome’s call for pooling debt risk via so-called eurobonds, Hager was quick to shoot down the idea and advise the EU “not get bogged down in ideological debates.”

More recently, the native Bavarian with a passion for tennis and basketball was involved in drafting the Commission’s recovery fund proposal that bridged the gap between German and Italian positions on financial assistance to countries hit hard by the coronavirus crisis.

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Sabine Weyand

The EU’s most powerful Germans (4)

Lukasz Kobus/European Union

Previously Brussels’ “bad cop” on Brexit and No. 2 to EU Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the German official is now head of the Commission’s powerful trade department, overseeing trade negotiations with the U.S., China, Australia and the U.K.

Weyand, known for her blunt, sometimes jovial, sometimes confrontational style, is one of the Commission’s most outspoken civil servants — an eloquent speaker at public debates and a smart but tough negotiator behind closed doors, according to diplomats who have dealt with her.

Given that the German presidency hopes to push forward with the ratification process for the controversial EU-Mercosur trade deal, Weyand’s skills will soon face a hard test: convincing skeptical lawmakers and civil society organizations to sign off on the free-trade agreement.

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Gunnar Wiegand

The EU’s most powerful Germans (5)

Francois Walschaerts/European Union

As the managing director for Asia and the Pacific at the European External Action Service (EEAS), the pragmatic northern German will be a key official when it comes to Merkel’s foreign policy priority for the presidency: China.

A passionate sailor from Hamburg, Wiegand is a key official behind last year’s policy shift, when the EU started to label China as a “systemic rival.” During the past four years, he has also been involved in negotiations over an investment agreement with Beijing that Merkel hopes to sign at an EU-China summit in Leipzig later this year.

Wiegand, who is no stranger to dealing with big partners, having managed relations with the U.S. and Russia,has repeatedly expressed frustration about China’s unwillingness to make the concessions needed to sign such a deal. But with the fresh push from Berlin, 2020 could be a make-or-break moment for the negotiations: Either a deal gets done, or it’s off the table completely. Either way, he’ll play an outsize role in the direction of travel.

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Christiane Canenbley

The EU’s most powerful Germans (6)

European Union photo

No stranger to the inner workings of the bubble, Canenbley — who studied agriculture and politics — worked in the Cabinet of former Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan before joining former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s team, where she managed relations with Germany and Austria.

In her new position as deputy head of Cabinet for Executive Vice President Margarethe Vestager, Canenbley oversees Europe’s digital transition, which is also a priority of the German presidency.

The fact that Canebley — a mother of five and a music aficionado who plays the violin — is not associated with any political party is likely to be an asset when it comes to dealing with ministries in Berlin run by the CDU/CSU or the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

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Renate Nikolay

The EU’s most powerful Germans (7)

Nikolay, right, with Vĕra Jourová | Lieven Creemers/European Commission

Highly competent, determined and hard-working, Nikolay is known in the Commission as a “German machine.”

She cut her teeth in the Cabinets of former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and former Commissioner for Trade Peter Mandelson before becoming a head of unit in the Commission’s justice department. She’s now head of Cabinet to Czech Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová.

Nikolay — who enjoys going to the opera in her free time, according to people close to her — planned to take up a senior position this year as director for Asia and Latin America at the Commission’s trade department. She is now likely to stay on with Jourová, whose portfolio got a boost when she became the Commission’s chief official to fight disinformation under von der Leyen.

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David McAllister

The EU’s most powerful Germans (8)

Clemens Bilan/EPA

The son of a Scottish father and a German mother, McAllister made a name for himself in Brussels as chair of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament and is now also head of the coordination group monitoring negotiations over the future EU-U.K. relationship.

As a former state premier of Lower Saxony and senior member of Merkel’s CDU party, he has close ties to Berlin and the German chancellor — not to mention von der Leyen, whom he knows from his days in Lower Saxony, where they both took their first steps in local politics.

A former colleague described McAllister as “extremely demanding during working hours, very relaxed after work.”

Indeed, McAllister is usually to be found with a beer in hand, cracking jokes at German policy and attending networking events in the Brussels bubble. On weekends, in pre-pandemic times, he typically traveled back to his hometown of Bad Bederkesa, where he likes to play tennis with his daughters.

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Bernd Lange

The EU’s most powerful Germans (9)

Francois Walschaerts/European Union

Whom do you call when you want to talk about EU trade? Increasingly, that would be Lange.

Known for his sympathetic smile and his dry humor, the Northern German Social Democrat has been chair of the European Parliament’s international trade committee since 2014. As criticism of trade deals has grown among citizens and politicians across the world, so has his influence. It’s no longer only ambassadors or foreign trade ministers who request meetings with him, but also world leaders (such as, most recently, the Vietnamese prime minister), who want to bend Lange’s ear and seek reassurances he will push to get the majority needed to ratify their trade deal.

Lange was also an early advocate of making trade more sustainable by pushing for binding environmental and labor rules in agreements — long before the EU made a so-called level playing field a core demand for its upcoming trade deal with the U.K. His influence is alsoincreasing in Berlin, where officials — aware of the importance of trade deals for the country’s export-dependent economy — are hoping for the ratification of the Mercosur deal.

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Daniel Caspary

The EU’s most powerful Germans (10)

Fred Marvaux/European Union

When Merkel needs to push Berlin’s priorities in Brussels, Caspary is her man.

The head of the CDU’s group in the European Parliament is eloquent, well-connected and knows the Brussels political scene like the back of his hand. Caspary, who made a name for himself as an ardent defender of free-trade deals, is considered a talented negotiator who knows how to build political alliances.

But he’s also not one to shy away from a fight. When Commission antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager sought to impose strict conditions on German flag carrier Lufthansa in exchange for allowing a €9 billion rescue package, Caspary described her demands as “pathetic.” Nor does he mince his words when he thinks Berlin should adapt its political goals and focus its attention on Europe.

Caspary, a trained economist and father of five, typically spends his weekends with his family near Karlsruhe, in southern Germany. His week sometimes starts with a 5 a.m. drive to Berlin for CDU board meetings before he heads to Brussels (or Strasbourg) for his day job.

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Manfred Weber

The EU’s most powerful Germans (11)

Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

The leader of the European People’s Party parliamentary group is Merkel’s go-to when she needs a read on the pulse of her greater pan-European political family — or the mood in the European Parliament as a whole.

There’s no doubt the Bavarian, above, who has spent most of his political career in the Brussels bubble, knows how the place works. More recently, though, his clout has diminished in the wake of his failed bid to become Commission president in last year’s European election, for which he received only a half-hearted backing from Merkel.

After being away for close to two months for health reasons, Weber celebrated his comeback in early May by pushing for the Parliament to take on a strong role in the oversight of the EU’s new coronavirus recovery fund. In Brussels and Berlin, they know: Weber remains a powerful voice.

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Monika Hohlmeier

The EU’s most powerful Germans (12)

Clemens Bilan/EPA

A fellow Bavarian, Hohlmeier is chair of the European Parliament’s budgetary control committee, which oversees not only the EU institutions’ spending behavior but also keeps a close eye on investigations into the misuse of funds — whether they’re opened by national authorities, the EU’s anti-fraud office (OLAF) or the newly founded European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

With the new European recovery fund expected to lead to a potential increase in fraud related to taxpayer money, Hohlmeier’s role is likely to become even more decisive in the months and years ahead.

Cheerful by nature, the Bavarian is known to get tough when she has to. When OLAF recently underwent an internal reshuffle without informing her committee, she went straight to European Commissioner for Budget Johannes Hahn, who is responsible for the anti-fraud office, to voice her disapproval.

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Klaus Welle

The EU’s most powerful Germans (13)

Benoit Bourgeois/European Union

As the European Parliament’s secretary-general for the past 11 years, the German civil servant is not an uncontroversial figure.

Nicknamed the “dark prince” in the Parliament because he prefers backroom deals to the spotlight, Welle has made it his mission to boost the institution’s profile and its ability to both challenge the Commission and play a greater role in overseeing the implementation of EU policy. If not everyone agrees with his methods, even his critics admit he has succeeded in making the Parliament more efficient and influential on the EU stage.

His next mission: Hold von der Leyen to her election pledge to give the Parliament the “right of initiative” — meaning that MEPs could propose new laws to which the Commission would be bound to respond.

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Helga Schmid

The EU’s most powerful Germans (14)

Florian Wieser/EPA

“Women are the better negotiators,” is the Bavarian diplomat’s slogan — and her impressive career in the male-dominated foreign policy milieu seems to prove her theory.

After working for two German foreign ministers — Klaus Kinkel and Joschka Fischer — Schmid moved to Brussels in 2006 to lead the policy unit of former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. She is now secretary-general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), which she joined upon its creation in 2010.

The German official played a particularly significant role in the Iran nuclear deal, launching negotiations in 2003 as chief of staff to Fischer and later finalizing them as lead negotiator in 2015. She is still closely involved in discussions to maintain the deal, which came under threat after the United States walked away in 2018.

In her current role, Schmid has pushed hard to improve the EEAS’s gender balance (the share of female diplomats working for the institution has gone from 20 percent to 28 percent in the past four years) and give the relatively new institution a sense of unity and purpose.

Her diplomatic style is, perhaps, a little different to most. “I find it horrible to only sit in conference rooms,” she said, preferring to bond with foreign counterparts by going to art exhibitions. “Some [diplomats and politicians] like to play golf; I prefer art. In many countries, the respect shown for their national cultural achievements is hugely appreciated.”

Her contract in Brussels runs out toward the end of the year, but where she will go next is still a secret.

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Kerstin Jorna

The EU’s most powerful Germans (15)

European Union photo

As the new head of the internal market and industry department in the European Commission, Jorna will play a key role in helping Berlin walk one of the most difficult tightropes of its upcoming presidency: how to manage the transition to a green economy while also boosting Europe’s industrial champions and making the bloc more competitive on the global stage.

Her new role makes Jorna — a trained lawyer and passionate runner — an important contact person for industry lobbyists, while also potentially putting her on a collision course with those pushing for the EU to be more ambitious with its climate goals.

Commission officials and diplomats praise Jorna’s knowledge and organizational talent, which almost got her a job as head of Cabinet for Thierry Breton, the French commissioner for the internal market, before a furious intervention from Paris made sure the job went to a Frenchman instead. Still, in her job as head of DG GROW, she’s a powerful player in the French commissioner’s orbit, and will be developing concrete plans for Europe’s future industrial policy alongside him.

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Martin Selmayr

The EU’s most powerful Germans (16)

Patrick Seeger/EPA

Once Brussels’ most powerful (and feared) personality, the political antics of the Juncker Commission’s former secretary-general were legendary in the bubble.

Perhaps rightly, von der Leyen feared she would get no real grip on the Commission with the “Monster of the Berlaymont” still around and running the show.

Now the Commission’s representative to Austria, a job he parachuted himself into, Selmayr doesn’t seem entirely done backseat driving. Two days ahead of the official publication of the Commission’s recovery fund, Selmayr revealed key details — including the figures involved — to the press. The move was a potent reminder that the German official remains influential, even if he is not in a position to control Brussels business directly.

Commission officials say there’s still a big network of loyalists in the Commission (some call it the “Selmayr deep state”) that may help him plot his return to Brussels. It’s a prospect to which critics respond: If it’s real power you’re craving, trade in your Eurocrat career for a political one and get yourself elected.

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