Marathon EU summit on ‘top jobs’ to reconvene amid recriminations

Donald Tusk to put forward new compromise list of possible nominations

European Council president Donald Tusk and Estonian prime minister Juri Ratas attend a roundtable at the council’s summit  in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/Pool via Reuters

European Council president Donald Tusk and Estonian prime minister Juri Ratas attend a roundtable at the council’s summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/Pool via Reuters

 

After a day and night of frantic bilateral meetings with fellow EU leaders, and precious little sleep, European Council president Donald Tusk will reconvene the group’s deadlocked summit on Tuesday morning with another new compromise list of “top job” nominations to break the impasse on the issue.

Ominously, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, while expressing some confidence that a deal can be done, added that: “You hope that time does its work, if not then we are here Wednesday again and Thursday again.” The summit is already breaking duration records.

Leaders have been silent about who they expect to be on the Tusk list for the four top jobs, but there were persistent rumours that current European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans and the Bulgarian CEO of the World Bank, Kristalina Georgieva – a socialist and a member of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) respectively – remain frontrunners for the commission and council presidencies.

Strong opposition on Sunday from the EPP to Mr Timmermans has apparently failed to knock him out of the running. And Ms Georgieva ticks several important boxes – the leaders say they are determined that at least one woman will be in the final mix, and her eastern European credentials will reassure Poland and Hungary, who on Monday were warning of bigger splits in Europe if Mr Timmermans was appointed.

Reports that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was among the vehement opponents of Mr Timmermans have been denied by Irish sources, who say that the Taoiseach’s priority is upholding the EPP position and finding the critical necessary balance between gender, party and region. A source said that Mr Varadkar had not spoken specifically against Mr Timmermans.

When the Taoiseach’s own name was suggested by Mr Tusk, he made clear to the council president that he was not interested – and that he had priorities at home requiring his attention.

Meeting postponed

Mr Varadkar stayed over in Brussels on Monday night and Tuesday morning’s scheduled Cabinet meeting has been postponed. The Taoiseach has been involved in numerous bilateral and multilateral meetings with fellow leaders over Sunday night and Monday morning, but on Monday night was not scheduled to attend more.

There were some recriminations on Monday as the leaders emerged from their overnight meetings – at the divided EPP, with German chancellor Angela Merkel said to be at odds with her fellow leaders, and with regards to the Visegrád Group’s (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) obdurate resistance to Mr Timmermans’s nomination, with French president Emmanuel Macron warning that the EU itself was at risk if it could not take such decisions.

Portuguese PM António Costa said some national leaders from across the political spectrum had been “deeply engaged” to find a solution to the leadership deadlock, but others were “captured by those who want to divide Europe, from the Visegrád Group or from positions such as Mr Salvini’s” – referring to Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini.

Mr Costa said Dr Merkel had been “very much determined” to find a solution “but, unfortunately, did not find the necessary support in her own political family”.

Dr Merkel warned that, with Brexit “looming”, imposing centre-left candidate Mr Timmermans as commission president risked creating a dangerous split with the populist governments in Poland and Italy.

“We have to pay attention to the fact that we have smaller and bigger countries in the Visegrád Group, but to outvote that group and, on top of that, a country like Italy, that would be difficult . . .” she told journalists.

“It should not lead to tensions that will determine years and years to come. The Brexit is looming on the horizon. Other important issues are on the table. I think we need to treat each other with care.”

The EU risks losing its credibility on the world stage and in the eyes of its citizens if it continues to limp along “as a club of 28 that meets without every finding agreements”, Mr Macron told journalists, as he demanded a move away from unanimity voting.

Qualified majority

The votes on the commission president are not, however, based on unanimity but are a qualified majority vote, although Mr Tusk is reported to have so far assiduously avoided voting, preferring to develop a consensus instead.

“Many individuals didn’t facilitate agreements because they have personal ambitions,” Mr Macron told reporters. “What is missing around the table is the sentiment and the duty to defend the European public interest.”

Meanwhile in Strasbourg, new MEPs began to gather on Monday for their first session. They are expected to elect their president on Thursday, and EU leaders are anxious to resolve their own top jobs impasse ahead of that, in order that the parliament might contribute to the overall jobs balance. 

With the EPP’s candidate for the commission presidency, Manfred Weber, clearly out of the running, he is seen as a likely nominee for the parliament presidency.

Mr Timmermans (60) is a Dutch social democrat and former foreign minister who is first vice-president of the commission; in effect, Jean-Claude Juncker’s deputy. In that role he has had responsibility for policing rule-of-law violations in the member states and specifically for negotiating with Poland and Hungary over the issue. His robustness has prompted Warsaw to demonise him, suggesting he is working to a personal agenda.

Both Warsaw and Budapest strongly resent his nomination to head the commission and have roped in the other two Visegrád member states in this effort, with likely support from Italy. But the group would need a blocking minority of seven to stop him.