Seeing the prize of the European Commission presidency slipping from their party's grasp, the leaders of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) on Sunday night scuppered a compromise deal that would have given the job to a socialist – commission vice-president Frans Timmermans.
Early confidence that the special "top jobs" European Council meeting in Brussels might be able quickly to reach agreement evaporated as the EPP leaders including, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, emerged from their pre-summit conclave adamant that the job belonged to the EPP as the largest party in parliament and warning that Timmermans's appointment would enrage and alienate eastern and central European states.
Early this morning the council was still locked in argument as council president Donald Tusk fought to broker a compromise that would share out the four key jobs – the European Commission, the European Council and the European Central Bank presidencies, and the high representative for foreign policy – in a way that would balance between parties, regions and genders.
Sources close to Tusk were being quoted suggesting he had lost faith in a deal on Sunday night and was talking of another special summit on July 15th.
It had seemed that a distribution brokered between heads of the larger states in Osaka at the G20 last week would run, but it meant that the EPP would be forced to take "only" the presidency of the parliament – not actually in the gift of the leaders – and Timmermans's name enraged the eastern Europeans who resent the vigour with which he has pursued rule-of-law measures and cases against Poland and Hungary. More than one EPP leader has problems with his "socialist" politics.
“From the EPP’s 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,” Varadkar told journalists on his way in to the summit. “Secondly, a lot of the countries from central and eastern Europe are very much opposed to the proposal that Timmermans be president of the council largely because they believe it will further tensions between east and west.”
Varadkar was reported to have strongly spoken out against the compromise at the EPP meeting.
“We’re in for a long night and I don’t think it’s certain by any means we’ll get a decision,” he warned.
The point was emphasised in a letter from Hungary's Viktor Orban to the EPP, from which his Fidesz party is currently suspended, in which he warned that abandoning its "spitzenkandidat" would be a "historic" mistake that would represent political humiliation for the party which had won the European elections. "This will lead to our own self-destruction," Orban wrote.
The EPP leaders' emphasis on the commission presidency job instead of the name of its lead candidate or spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber, the leader of their group in parliament, suggested, however, that the party might be open to another of its own taking the job. Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was again being mentioned.
To win the council’s nomination, the future commission president must get the votes of 22 EU countries representing at least 60 per cent of the European population. As one diplomat reminded us, after all, “Tusk was elected without the support of Poland.”