European Union top jobs summit in trouble as compromise falters

Brussels, Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest, BelgiumUpdated: Jul 01, 2019, 01:07 PM IST

File Photo. Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

The leaders began a working dinner almost three hours late, only for the summit to be suspended an hour later to allow host EU Council president Donald Tusk to consult leaders individually.

European leaders worked through a long night of furious debate Monday as a bid to find compromise on Brussels' top jobs ran into stiff opposition.

France's President Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Brussels after developing a plan on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

Under the "Sushi deal", the 28 EU leaders would nominate Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans as president of the European Commission, rather than his conservative rival German MEP Manfred Weber.

Weber would instead be put forward for election as speaker of the European Parliament, while a liberal candidate would become president of the EU Council of national leaders.

But, when Merkel put this to fellow centre-right leaders in the European People's Party (EPP), several rebelled, and the main summit was delayed as heads of government shuttled between side meetings until dawn broke.

The leaders began a working dinner almost three hours late, only for the summit to be suspended an hour later to allow host EU Council president Donald Tusk to consult leaders individually.

Tusk's office tweeted the summit would resume "once bilaterals completed", but six hours later they were still underway, with the former Polish premier trying to get conservatives back on board.

Before the summit, but after the leaders from the centre-right group met, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic warned: "There is no support for what circulated in media today."

Irish premier Leo Varadkar was also pessimistic. 

"From the EPP point of view, the vast majority of EPP prime ministers don't believe that we should give up the presidency of the Commission quite so easily without a fight," he said.

'Poorly prepared'

A French source told AFP the breakdown in communication between Merkel and her fellow centre-right leaders had not been anticipated.

"This summit was very poorly prepared," said one European diplomat, annoyed by the lack of consultation before the marathon session.

For a nominee to go forward, he or she must secure the backing of 21 of the 28 EU leaders, representing 65 percent of the bloc's population.

Timmermans, the outgoing vice-president of the Commission, spearheaded EU efforts to impose its vision of the rule of law on authoritarian-leaning eastern members and is firmly opposed by Hungary and Poland.

But sources said Merkel and Macron were trying to coral the eastern countries around to his candidacy which, if approved, could face a vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday.

Macron arrived at the summit in an upbeat mood, determined to push on with efforts to agree a power-sharing package, adding that the top jobs should be shared by men and women equally.

The 28 leaders are aiming to agree candidates for president of the European Commission, president of their own Council and a foreign policy chief. 

"The way things are presented, they will not be very simple consultations, to put it mildly," Merkel, the bloc's most influential leader, said as she arrived.

Macron, however, reiterated the names of Timmermans, Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager and French conservative Michel Barnier.

He admitted he had been "hostile" to some candidates, implying Weber.

Merkel had discussed a four-person package at Saturday's G20 summit with Macron and prime ministers Pedro Sanchez of Spain and the Netherlands' Mark Rutte.

Historical mistake

As vice-president of the Commission for the past five years, Timmermans has made enemies in the east of the EU.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in a letter to EPP leader Joseph Daul, said Timmermans would be a "serious or even historical mistake".

Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki said: "Frans Timmermans is a candidate who deeply divides Europe and he certainly doesn't understand Central Europe."

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is attending her last EU summit. A spokesman said she would play a "constructive role" and would not abstain from any vote.

The EPP came out on top in European parliamentary elections in May, although with a historically low share of the vote and little-known Weber as its lead candidate.