EU leaders battle to end embarrassing top jobs impasse
The challenge is to name a group of new leaders of the EU institutions that respect the 28-nation bloc's political affiliations
BRUSSELS – European Union leaders huddled yet again Tuesday in an effort to overcome an embarrassing deadlock over nominating candidates to hold the bloc’s key posts for at least the next five years.
In one of the longest EU summits in recent years, the leaders are looking to name a new president of the EU’s powerful executive arm, the European Commission, a president of the European Council and a foreign policy chief.
The European Parliament is set to vote Wednesday on its new president, while the new chairman of the European Central Bank could be named later.
The official start of the summit was delayed by more than four hours Tuesday as current European President Donald Tusk led discussions in groups aimed at finding a compromise over who should secure the coveted posts.
The leaders are struggling to show the EU is still relevant and coherent after the bloc’s two traditional centre-right and left powers lost votes in May’s European elections.
The challenge is to name a group of new leaders of the EU institutions that respect the 28-nation bloc’s political affiliations, geography – a balance of countries from the north and south, east and west – population size and to have at least two women nominated.
“Everyone has to understand that they have to move a little bit,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. The leaders, she added, “have the duty to find a solution.”
But the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, backed by Italy, appeared firmly entrenched in their opposition to former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, who is seen by many as the most qualified candidate to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the European Commission.
Timmermans is seen by these countries – many of them with anti-migrant governments – as a supporter of a controversial scheme to impose refugee quotas on EU countries. He has also led efforts, backed by the threat of legal action, to improve the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
“We want somebody on the presidency of the commission which doesn’t have a negative view on our region. Mr. Timmermans is not acceptable for us. That’s it,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis told reporters as he arrived at EU headquarters in Brussels.
“We have a completely different view on migration. He was always behind quotas and so on, so this is a problem for us,” Babis said.
But Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez – a Socialist like Timmermans – said that stance was “unacceptable.”
“You cannot reject a person because he has defended the treaties, and the principles and European values that we stand for,” he said.
Still, Timmerman’s chances seemed dead in the water by midday, when the name of Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, emerged as a possible candidate for the commission job.
Von der Leyen, 60, was born in Brussels and spent her early years in the Belgian capital.
Diplomats, talking on condition of anonymity because deliberations were continuing, also mentioned the possibility that Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel would become European Council president while Spain’s Josep Borrell was touted as a possible foreign policy chief.
Attention has focused on the European People’s Party, led by Merkel. The EPP has dominated the EU’s institutions and stood as the biggest group in parliament over the last five years, but its star is waning and party leaders are still reluctant to relinquish power, despite the election failure.
Under a calculus that is really only clear to Brussels insiders, Merkel and some of her supporters had wanted Timmermans to be named commission president on the understanding that their man, German lawmaker Manfred Weber, is named president of the European Parliament.
“I hope the EPP had a reboot during the night and the system is working,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, a free-market liberal aligned with French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Yesterday they had a bug.”
The summit, which started Sunday afternoon, broke down in recriminations on Monday, with leaders taking swipes at each other and criticizing EU Council President Donald Tusk, who is chairing the marathon meeting and whose term ends on Oct 31.
Tusk was already working the phone as he left his car and headed into what could prove another long day at the office.
AP Writers Mike Corder in Brussels and Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.