Summit fails to select EU top-job candidates but clarifies criteria

Spitzenkandidat system dead as member states agree to reconvene on June 30th

  European Council president Donald Tusk (left) and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker:  business ended on Friday with  a brief Brexit discussion. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet

European Council president Donald Tusk (left) and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker: business ended on Friday with a brief Brexit discussion. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet

 

Although EU leaders on Thursday night laboured mightily to no apparent end to break their “top jobs” deadlock, their four-hour debate into the early hours may well have done useful ground-clearing work.

At the two-day summit in Brussels that ended on Friday, they reduced the options and simplified the criteria for the jobs, perhaps turning the appointment process from a four-dimensional game of chess into a three-dimensional one.

They have agreed to meet to try again at a special dinner-time summit on the issue on June 30th.

The prime ministers did not agree on who would get the European Commission presidency – and did not even start to discuss the three other top jobs in their gift – but they do appear to have decided, at least implicitly, who would not get it: the European People’s Party’s Manfred Weber (German), the Socialist and Democrats’ Frans Timmerman (Dutch) and the liberals’/Renew Europe’s Margrethe Vestager (Danish).

At a 2am press conference, European Council president Donald Tusk announced that none of the three had achieved a majority – the message was clear, they were no longer in the running. And just in case that was not understood, EPP sources let it be known that if their man was down, they would block the other two.

Interinstitutional crisis

The leaders gave what seems to be the kiss of death to the European Parliament’s spitzenkandidat system, under which “lead candidates” from the main parties faced the European electorate as their parties’ nominees for the commission job.

It was MEPs’ way of leveraging their veto on the appointment into a positive insistence on their candidate. The veto remains but will they be willing to exercise it, plunging the EU into a major interinstitutional crisis?

Asked if the spitzenkandidat format was dead, Slovakian prime minister Peter Pellegrini said: “Yes, I think so. None of them have a majority, and I don’t believe they will have a majority next week.”

Frustration with the system, which has never really been accepted by the leaders although it brought us Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014, has led to discussion of how to improve it next time round. France’s Emmanuel Macron, one of the spitzenkandidat’s most vocal critics, has won some support for the argument that the system would only be justifiable and genuinely democratic if based on all-EU transnational lists, one giant constituency in which all shared an equal vote.

But agreement on that approach is likely to be fiercely contested, not least by small states like Ireland which fear that their voice would be swamped in transnational lists.

The winnowing down of the field on Thursday night should make the leaders’ task on Sunday week easier. Freed of responsibility to uphold party discipline, the leaders can now cast their net around in a wider pool. 

Fine Gael is affiliated to the European People’s Party and, asked if he as an EPP leader was now free to back EU chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, also an EPP member, for the commission job, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hesitated and said that of course Weber remained their official candidate. But sources suggest the Taoiseach is already quietly canvassing votes for Barnier.

Intensive networking

Tusk now returns to his intensive networking with prime ministers and, crucially, MEPs. There is now a much clearer insistence from officials close to him that, no matter how it complicates his task, no candidate should emerge from the council who does not have a very good chance of also winning parliamentary approval.

His challenge is still to balance the requirement to satisfy the multiple, perhaps contradictory, expectations on a team for the four jobs, commission president, council president, high representative for foreign policy and head of he European Central Bank.

The line-up must have party balance, gender balance, allow representation from eastern Europe, include no more than one per country, satisfy the big beasts of France and Germany and be acceptable to MEPs. Leaders have also been inclined to add the requirement of executive experience – sometimes seen as being a former prime minister.

When Tusk has established the fallback positions of the member states, he may present them for a vote on Sunday week; to win a commission president candidate must garner 72 per cent support and at the moment there are only, as in the House of Commons on Brexit, blocking minorities at every turn.

Varadkar suggests quite sensibly they should use the Belgian D’Hondt voting system – a means used in the Republic and in Northern Ireland to divide up jobs where there are no majorities. Unfortunately the EU council rules do not provide for voting in one go on a block of jobs .

Prime ministers wrapped up their business on Friday with a euro zone summit, before a brief Brexit discussion – a reiteration of unity and determination not to reopen the withdrawal agreement. Departing European Central Bank president Mario Draghi presented an upbeat report on the state of the European economy, although warning of risks of “trade and geopolitical tensions” in the world economy.

The leaders – or those who will be there – agreed to represent such concerns at next week’s G20 summit in Osaka before giving the “man who saved the euro” a standing ovation.

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