EU leaders set for major battle over bloc’s top jobs
This time around, many in the EU feel that women need to be better represented at the top of the EU's hierarchy
BRUSSELS – With all the top jobs at the European Union coming open, EU leaders gathered Thursday for a major bout of political horse-trading, trying to pick candidates who will have a major impact on the bloc over the next five to eight years while keeping its 28 nations happy.
That’s not an easy task.
The EU is responsible for co-ordinating common policies on sectors ranging from the single market to agriculture, from competition issues to immigration. The main posts up for grabs Thursday are the head of the EU’s powerful executive arm, the European Commission – now held by Jean-Claude Juncker – and the president of the European Council, the body that represents the member states in Brussels. That position is currently held by Donald Tusk.
Other key jobs to be filled include the president of the European Parliament, chairman of the European Central Bank and the EU foreign policy chief. The EU’s parliament must endorse some of the posts.
French President Emmanuel Macron hit Brussels early for a series of meetings, hours before the summit started, meeting with several European leaders and holding talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
That set off a chain reaction of informal huddles involving Merkel — leader of the EU’s biggest power — to weigh up potential candidates based on their political affiliation, nationality and gender, and perhaps their diplomatic acumen.
Merkel said this two-day summit might not necessarily succeed in filling all top jobs at stake, an issue that has divided the 28 members. Ahead of her meeting with Macron, she said that positions were still so far apart “it’s possible there will be no result today.”
Merkel has come out in favour of German parliamentarian Manfred Weber for the job of Commission president but Macron has not backed his candidacy.
Macon declined to name names when asked about his favourite candidates and insisted the meeting should not be seen as a power struggle between Europe’s two major powers, France and Germany.
“I’m not locked up in any specific scheme, and our aim is to make emerge the best team for Europe,” he said.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that the European People’s Party – the centre-right conservative grouping that is the biggest in the EU parliament – will continue to support Weber but echoed Merkel’s comments that the discussion could continue.
“The likelihood is that we will have to have another summit at the end of June or early July,” Varadkar said. “It’s quicker to elect the pope very often than it is to fill these particular positions.”
Tusk, who chairs the summit, said his many contacts “have shown that there are different views, different interests, but also a common will to finalize this process before the first session” of the EU parliament on July 2.
If no consensus emerges by Friday, another leaders’ summit could be convened before the end of the month.
For weeks now, each nation has sought to jockey their favourite candidate into the best position to exert the most clout for the few years.
The responsibilities are huge: Tusk and Juncker negotiate with the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump or Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while the head of the ECB can set monetary policy for the 19 nations who use the shared euro currency.
The leaders of EU institutions are supposed to impartially represent the interests of all member nations on the global stage and at home. But patriotism sets in as officials from individual EU countries push candidates from their homelands to rule the roost of the bloc’s population of 500 million and the world’s biggest economic alliance.
Beyond national concerns, there is geography too. There needs to be a mix of big member states, like Merkel’s Germany, and small ones, like Juncker’s Luxembourg. The west and east, north and south also need their balance. 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 foreign policy chief.
Then there is the political competition between the Christian Democrats, Socialists, free-market liberals and even Greens to make sure enough of their concerns shine through. Many feel that even though the Christian Democratic group is the biggest in the EU parliament, having Tusk, Tajani and Juncker all in power was too much of a good thing. The political bloc was weakened by losses in last month’s EU elections.
This time around, many in the EU feel that women need to be better represented at the top of the EU’s hierarchy.
It makes for an implausible array of candidates who will have to fit into a European political puzzle. Even Merkel has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Tusk, or perhaps Juncker, though she has denied it.
More plausible candidates for top jobs include current prime ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, Stefan Lofven of Sweden, Andrej Plenkovic of Croatia and Charles Michel of Belgium. Others mentioned for top EU jobs include Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier of France, Greens leader Ska Keller of Germany, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, EU first vice-president Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands and Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief since 2014.
Many candidates have denied EU ambitions, putting on shows of disinterest that in the past have often helped candidates secure a top job.
Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.