Row over future European Commission president likely to rumble on

Opposition growing to Weber, the European People’s Party ‘spitzenkandidat’

 European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at a EPP leader meeting ahead of a special EU summit in Brussels, Belgium.  Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at a EPP leader meeting ahead of a special EU summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

 

The subtext to journalists from the EU leaders going into their summit dinner in Brussels on Tuesday night was clear.

The gathering was part post mortem on the European Parliament elections and part preliminary discussion on the succession to Jean Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission – the main course on the menu. That will not be easy or straightforward.

The presumed favourite for the job, Manfred Weber, group leader in the parliament of the centre-right European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael is affiliated, will not be a shoo-in. Weber is the EPP’s “spitzenkandidat” – ie lead candidate for the commission presidency – and the group has emerged again as the biggest in the parliament, in spite of a reduction in support.

European Council president Donald Tusk put it bluntly after the dinner: there would be “no automaticity”. Although EU leaders were committed to consulting MEPs, nominations would not be confined to the lead candidates – or spitzenkandidaten – put forward by the parliament.

Tusk also made a strong commitment to gender balance in the EU’s top four jobs.

On Tuesday night leaders were not, however, going to make any decision, simply start the process which Tusk hoped would end by the leaders’ summit in June, though that appears improbable.

Earlier the EPP leaders met to reiterate their support for Weber while the heads of parliament groups did likewise for the spitzenkandidat system.

Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa, however, insisted to journalists that the next commission president should be someone “who has executive experience”. Subtext for the fact that Weber has never been a minister.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki insisted the top jobs are considered in “a package”, and spoke of the importance of regional diversity. So again, the subtext was evident: no automatic enthronement of Weber.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reiterated his support as a loyal party member for the EPP’s spitzenkandidat and stressed the need for the European elections to be reflected in the leaders’ appointments. But he accepted the EPP could not take the decision alone and spoke of the need for “compromise” across party groups.

He stressed Ireland’s concern that the successful candidate would have a keen appreciation of the challenges the country faces. He didn’t need to mention Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s name. The latter remains an outsider, however – he did not face the voters.

Other groups

Socialist Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez told reporters it was important to spell out what criteria leaders were looking for in new EU leaders.

He pointed out that the long-dominating powers in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party and Socialists, no longer had a majority and therefore needed to talk to other groups. And he spoke glowingly of commission vice-president Frans Timmermans.

Not only he was he the spitzenkandidat of the Socialist group, he had experience not only at national level but at European level, he insisted.

Behind the scenes an informal cabal of leaders to scupper Weber is reported to have emerged , involving the Liberals, with their new ally Emmanuel Macron, and the Socialist group.

A private lunch yesterday between Macron, Socialist representatives Sánchez and Costa, and Liberal representatives Mark Rutte and Charles Michel, the prime ministers of the Netherlands and Beligum respectively, is said to have cemented the alliance for Timmermans.

If they are to defeat Weber, it is argued, they must not at the same time bring down the spitzenkandidat system, although they may not like it. To do so would provoke an unnecessary and difficult conflict with MEPs. Tusk was adamant that no-one is interested in inter-institutional conflict.

Timmermans’s candidature would appear to fit the bill.

Before the leaders sat down to dinner oln Tuesday night parliament president Antonio Tajani, in his usual pre-summit address, reiterated the strong support of a large majority of MEPs and parliamentary groups for the spitzenkandidat system. He clearly warned that parliament and the democratic expression of the voters throughout the union would not be ignored.

For some leaders the decision is theirs’ alone, and the parliament is being presumptuous in demanding that their nomination be accepted automatically.

MEPs say the treaty clearly gives them the right to “elect” the president of the commission.

The row is likely to run through the summer