BRUSSELS (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron disagreed on Tuesday over who should be the next chief of the European Commission as EU leaders met to begin bargaining over candidates for the bloc’s top jobs in the next five years.
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives at a European Union leaders summit after European Parliament elections to discuss who should run the EU executive for the next five years, in Brussels, Belgium May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman
An EU-wide election last week returned a European Parliament with a splintered center and gains by pro-EU liberals and Greens as well as eurosceptic nationalists and the far right, making agreeing a coherent agenda for the bloc more tricky.
“We won’t choose Mr. or Ms. Europe today, but just draw a balance after the European election,” Luxembourg’s liberal prime minister, Xavier Bettel, said ahead of the meeting of 28 national leaders in Brussels.
Held once every five years, the EU election means the heads of major EU institutions will now be replaced.
Merkel said on arrival at the gathering that she backed center-right German lawmaker Manfred Weber to be the next head of the EU’s powerful executive, the European Commission, after Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker steps down on Oct. 31.
Macron pushed back minutes later, listing the EU competition commissioner, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the bloc’s Brexit negotiator, center-right Frenchman Michel Barnier, and Dutch Social Democrat Frans Timmermans – but not Weber – as appropriate candidates.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, also mooted as a possible contender in the obscure recruitment process, said Tuesday’s meeting was about “content rather than people”. It was also, he said, about agreeing policy priorities for the coming years, including climate change, economy and migration.
The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group were reduced to 326 seats together in the new, 751-strong chamber in Sunday’s vote, 50 short of the majority needed to determine by themselves who should head the Commission, as they had in years past.
Other big roles up for grabs later this year include the head of the European Parliament and the European Central Bank, the bloc’s foreign policy chief and the head of the European Council who represents leaders of the 28 EU member states and helps broker compromises among them.
The EU would risk an institutional logjam if talks drag on, leaving it unable to make pivotal policy decisions at a time when it faces a more assertive Russia, China’s growing economic might and an unpredictable U.S. president.
Leaders of a majority of parties in the newly elected chamber called on Tuesday on national government leaders to nominate a lawmaker to replace Juncker.
The EPP’s Weber has so far failed to rally the other EU assembly groups behind him.
Now, stripped of their longtime combined parliamentary majority, the EPP and S&D are looking for support from the liberal ALDE and the Greens, since the four groups together would command 504 seats, comfortably enough to approve or reject any nomination made by national leaders.
Among national government leaders, only seven are now with the EPP. French officials have said the liberal Macron could endorse the center-right Barnier to succeed Juncker, but was keeping his options open.
Macron has taken a stand against the “Spitzenkandidat” (lead candidate) system whereby a lawmaker selected by the European assembly should get the Commission job.
On Monday he met Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is seeking a bigger EU role for Madrid.
On Tuesday, a flurry of separate face-to-face talks was taking place in Brussels before all the leaders, including outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, convene at 1600 GMT.
Their chairman, ex-Polish premier Donald Tusk, expects to continue consultations with capitals after the initial debate.
He also wants to have names ready for the new European Parliament’s approval in July as otherwise the whole process risks getting delayed until autumn.
Unanimity is not required; Juncker got the job in 2014 despite British opposition and Hungarian abstention.
But it is hard to see a candidate succeeding against the will of more than just a handful of leaders, as that would risk damaging their cooperation in the future and stalling the EU’s decision-making machinery.
The difficult-to-call process will be a compromise between requirements of geography and political affiliation, as well as the candidates’ own profiles. [L8N2341US]
Names in the running for Commission chief from eastern Europe include outgoing Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, the Bulgarian World Bank head Kristalina Georgieva and the Czech Republic’s justice commissioner, Vera Jourova.
Reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Philip Blenkinsop, Alastair Macdonald, Francesco Guarascio, Robin Emmott, Daphne Psaledakis, Jean-Baptiste Vey and Michel Rose Writing by Gabriela Baczynska Editing by Mark Heinrich