Scramble begins for top EU jobs as leaders meet in Brussels

‘The process is just beginning tonight. Nobody will get any job this evening’

Manfred Weber: Irish sources suggest French president Emmanuel Macron’s opposition will block his attempt to become the next European Commission president. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

Manfred Weber: Irish sources suggest French president Emmanuel Macron’s opposition will block his attempt to become the next European Commission president. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

 

European Union leaders meet in Brussels this evening for an informal summit and dinner which will focus on filling the EU’s top jobs, all of which become vacant this year as the new Parliament and Commission take office.

The most important job – and the one at the centre of all the horse trading – is the presidency of the European Commission, held by Jean-Claude Juncker, the ex-prime minister of Luxembourg and old EU hand who has been clear he is not seeking another term.

However, the presidency of the European Parliament, the presidency of the European Council, the job of High Representative for Foreign Affairs check and the presidency of the European Central Bank are also all up to be filled this year. In reality, the appointments will be traded off against each other and other national priorities. The EU leaders will cut deals; this is how politics works.

“It will be a while before anything becomes clear, though. The process is just beginning tonight. Nobody will get any job this evening,” say Brussels insiders, but nobody will be ruled out either. “No names tonight,” says a source.

But everyone knows the scramble is on. In the first instance, this will revolve around Manfred Weber’s bid for the commission presidency.

Weber, a German MEP from Angela Merkel’s CDU party, is the candidate advanced by centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) as part of the “Spitzenkandidaten” or lead candidate process in which each of the big groups in the European parliament puts forward a candidate for the commission job, agreeing to back whoever wins for the job.

There’s two problems with that: first, there is no definition of winning, and second, the head of the commission is nominated under the treaties by the European Council – the group of heads of government that is the EU’s most powerful decision-making forum.

The EPP is the largest group. But it lost seats and is miles away from anything like a majority. In other words, it needs the agreement of the other parties in the parliament to give the job to Weber and it also needs the national presidents and prime ministers on the council to nominate him.

Neither is forthcoming at the moment.

Opposition on the council is led by French president Emmanuel Macron who is lobbying his fellow leaders heavily. EPP leaders reiterated their backing for Weber, but Brussels sources question if that will last; the assumption in Dublin and among Irish sources in Brussels is that Macron’s opposition will block Weber, leaving the Irish Government free to support Brexit ally Michel Barnier, who is also of the EPP.

The other candidates include Margrethe Vestager, the Danish commissioner who belongs to the Aide group of liberals, to which Macron’s En Marche group has recently allied itself, and Franz Timmermans, the Dutch Socialist who is also, like Vestager, already a commissioner.

Weber’s allies are briefing heavily against Vestager, suggesting they believe her to be more of a threat. She is the commissioner who has slapped big fines on Google, Apple and other tech giants – a record which would encourage some countries, and alarm others.

Whoever gets the commission job, it will most likely be part of an overarching political deal which includes the other big jobs. And it will certainly involve a more equitable sharing out among the political groupings. Currently, the EPP holds all the jobs, but that is unlikely to be the case again.

Various elaborate share-outs are being touted around Brussels – Weber gets the commission, Verhofstadt (a liberal) shares the parliament with the Greens, Macron gets to choose the president of the ECB and so on.

Others suggest the leaders dump the spitzenkandidaten process – which many of them dislike anyway – clearing the way for Barnier to take the commission and then Merkel gets to nominate German Jens Weidmann to the ECB. Everybody has a plan, but for now nobody has an clue how it will end up. One thing is for sure though – it will get close attention.

Important jobs for politicians is a topic politicians are very serious about.