EU leaders narrow top job candidates after all-night summit
BRUSSELS — More than 16 hours after their summit officially began, European Union leaders appeared at last to be homing in on three candidates to take over key posts at the helm of the 28-nation bloc for the next five years, officials said Monday.
As some reporters slumped asleep over their desks, a high-ranking diplomat involved in the deliberations — a night-long series of bilateral talks, group gatherings and meetings, including over breakfast — said that former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans was favorite to become the next European Commission president.
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the leaders hadn’t reconvened for formal talks where they were expected to confirm the jobs.
The commission, the EU’s powerful executive arm currently run by Jean-Claude Juncker, proposes and enforces EU laws, with policy commissioners who supervise policy on everything from national budgets to migration, from competition issues to health.
Over what has been one of the longest summits in recent years — surpassing even the record set during the Greek debt crisis — Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva from the center-right European People’s Party group looked likely to follow Donald Tusk as head of the European Council, which coordinates policies of member states and organizes summits.
Others in line for top jobs were pro-business liberals Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel or the current EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager from Denmark as foreign policy chief — essentially the bloc’s top diplomat. The leading EPP candidate Manfred Weber appeared in line to serve at least half a term as president of the European Parliament, the diplomat said.
The aim is to fill the posts respecting political affiliations, geography — a balance of countries from Europe’s north and south, east and west — population size and gender considerations. But the wrangling is yet another sign of the way that EU elections in May — which saw the two mainstream parties lose seats in the European Parliament — have shaken up Europe’s political landscape.
The Timmermans option for European Commission president deeply divided the EPP as it would surrender the key post to the rival Socialists & Democrats bloc even though the group remains the biggest in the EU parliament.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, an EPP stalwart, posted a video on his verified Facebook account of a discussion with Timmermans in which Borissov said the Dutchman should get the Commission job while the less coveted parliament presidency should go to EPP candidate Manfred Weber.
But Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar insisted that the “vast majority of the EPP prime ministers don’t believe we should give up the presidency of the Commission quite so easily, without a fight.”
After negotiations started early Sunday, Tusk had more than 30 bilateral meetings in his attempt to find a breakthrough.
The task was never going to be easy. While appointed by national leaders, the heads of the EU’s institutions are supposed to impartially represent the interests of all member nations globally and in Brussels.
Some leaders even discussed the roster of upcoming vacancies, which also include the chief of the European Central Bank for the next eight years, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan that concluded Saturday.
Tusk wants nominations to be wrapped up soon, seeking to prevent further erosion of public confidence in the EU amid uncertainty over Brexit — ironically set for Oct. 31, the same day Juncker steps down — and intra-bloc divisions over managing migration.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had backed Weber, but French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested Weber lacks the political and government experience for such a high-profile role.
In any case, pressure is high, as EU leaders want to fill the positions before the European Parliament picks its new president on Wednesday, possibly upsetting any balance they find.
Under EU rules, member countries choose who will run the European Commission, replacing Juncker. The parliament must endorse that choice. But the assembly has insisted that only the lead candidates from parties that ran in last month’s elections should be eligible for the post.
The job responsibilities are huge: Tusk and Juncker negotiate with the likes of President Donald Trump or Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while the head of the ECB can set monetary policy for the 19 nations that use the shared euro currency.
The outgoing group of EU officials was lopsidedly Italian, with Antonio Tajani holding the parliament top post, Mario Draghi head of the ECB and Federica Mogherini the EU foreign policy chief.
Other top candidates include current prime ministers Stefan Lofven of Sweden and Andrej Plenkovic of Croatia. Others mentioned include Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier of France, Greens leader Ska Keller of Germany and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.