European Council decision faces delay

Van Rompuy successor decision expected to be deferred at Brussels meeting

European Parliament president Martin Schulz congratulates Jean-Claude Juncker after his election as president of the European Commission. Photograph: Patrick Seeger/EPA

European Parliament president Martin Schulz congratulates Jean-Claude Juncker after his election as president of the European Commission. Photograph: Patrick Seeger/EPA

Wed, Jul 16, 2014, 01:00

EU leaders including Taoiseach Enda Kenny travel to Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the delegation of senior European Union positions, amid expectations that a decision on the next head of the European Council may be deferred.

While council president Herman Van Rompuy is understood to be in favour of reaching a decision solely on Catherine Ashton’s successor as EU foreign policy chief , a number of member states are pressing for a “package” of EU jobs to be decided today, including the European Council president position.

The full college of commissioners, including the position of high representative on foreign affairs, needs to be appointed before European Parliament hearings in September, but Mr Van Rompuy in theory can remain in situ until November.

While EU sources say Mr Kenny has strong support from a number of centre-right governments for the council president position, the Taoiseach himself has not expressed interest.

The favourites to take over as the EU’s high representative for foreign policy include Kristalina Georgieva, the respected Bulgarian commissioner for humanitarian aid. While Italy is strongly pushing for its foreign minister Federica Mogherini to succeed Baroness Ashton, its perceived pro-Russian sympathies, and 41-year old Ms Mogherini’s relative inexperience, means her candidacy is meeting strong resistance from a number of member states, particularly in eastern Europe.

While the foreign policy post is expected to be decided by consensus, an individual member state such as Italy could demand a vote.

Incoming European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament president Martin Schulz stressed on Tuesday in Strasbourg that gender balance was a key concern in the make-up of the next European Commission. “As things stand, the commission as a whole would not receive the backing of the parliament,” Mr Schulz said. The European Parliament must vote on the European Commission line-up before November.

Should Ms Georgieva, a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), be nominated as the EU’s foreign policy chief, a centre-left candidate would almost certainly assume the European council president job, leaving Denmark’s prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt the firm favourite.

On Tuesday Mr Juncker was elected to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso as president of the European Commission following his nomination by member states last month. The former Luxembourg prime minister, who was elected with 422 votes in favour, 250 against and 47 abstentions, pledged to embark on an “agenda of reform” .

In a speech that moved between French, German and English, Mr Juncker said: “The gap between the European Union and its citizens has increased [...] Europe needs to explain itself more. It’s up to us to deliver.”

Mr Juncker, who pledged to liaise with Britain’s prime minister David Cameron, indicated his intention to cut back on red tape and to respect the principle of subsidiarity, which states that decisions that can be made at national level should remain outside the remit of the European Union. “We shouldn’t Europeanise every tiny problem in the European Union. We should be dealing with the big tasks, the big challenges.”

Mr Juncker, who led the group of euro zone finance ministers for a decade, said he was proud of keeping Greece in the euro and praised the single currency, a comment which elicted applause and boos from the chamber. While acknowledging that mistakes had been made during the euro zone crisis as Europe “tried to keep a burning aeroplane in the air”, he said that any future adjustment programmes for countries would be accompanied by a social impact assessment.

While he called for a €300 billion investment package to be implemented, using funds from the EU budget, the European Investment Bank and private sources, he stopped short of signalling his support for an easing of fiscal rules.

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, strongly criticised the election of Mr Juncker. “If this is European democracy in action this morning I suggest we have a rethink,” he said. Pointing out that Mr Juncker’s name did not appear on any ballot paper, he said that nobody in the United Kingdom and in most other countries who voted in the European elections knew that Mr Juncker was a candidate for the commission presidency.

“The whole thing has been a stitch-up. The loser, Mr Schulz, gets the consolation prize of [getting] an unprecedented second term as head of the European Parliament.” He said Mr Juncker would carry on with the process of centralising powers, adding that “the vast majority of people don’t want a European state”.