Brussels – Half a dozen European leaders met behind closed doors on June 7 to haggle over Brussels’ top jobs as rival camps in the new EU parliament cobble together a centrist majority.
Last month’s continent-wide election saw pro-EU parties of the centre-right and centre-left hold the line against a populist surge, but it left their own ranks more divided than before.
The conservative European People’s Party (EPP) group remains the biggest single voting bloc in Strasbourg, but it will need the backing of the socialist S&D, the liberal ALDE and perhaps the Greens if it is to form a working majority.
At stake is the most powerful post in Brussels — the successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
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The EPP candidate is Bavarian MEP Manfred Weber, who has the backing of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel but has no executive experience and is opposed by the liberals and France’s President Emmanuel Macron.
To win the office, a candidate must first be nominated by a qualified majority of the European Council — that is 21 national leaders from states representing between them 65 percent of the EU’s some 500 million people.
Then he or she must be approved by a majority of the European Parliament, or 376 of the 751 MEPs.
European Council president Donald Tusk is coordinating the leaders’ search for a nominee before their next summit on June 20 and 21, but early signs suggest the negotiations will be long and arduous.
To nudge the process forward, six prime ministers met on Friday in Brussels.
Belgium’s Charles Michel and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte represented the liberal ALDE faction, while the Socialists and Democrats were championed by Spain’s Pedro Sanchez and Portugal’s Antonio Costa.
The centre-right EPP had Croat Andrej Plenkovic and Latvia’s Krisjanis Karins.
“The meeting was constructive, there was convergence on elements of the strategic agenda. Challenges were identified,” a Belgian government spokesman said.
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“The coordinators agreed to consult with their own political families and stay in close contact with each other.”
Before the talks, a Brussels-based diplomat had warned: “There will be more nights like tonight. There may be a first process of elimination, but I’m not expecting anything.”
– Back room haggling –
Meanwhile, the parliamentary groups are in talks about a draft governing programme, over who gets to run key parliamentary committees and the top jobs bazaar.
Working groups will meet from June 12 on five themes: climate, the economy and social affairs, digitalisation and consumer protection, the rule of law and migration, and Europe’s role in defence and foreign policy.
The aim is to agree a programme by June 17 that the EPP, S&D, ALDE and Green groups can get behind — presenting a fait accompli before the powerful national leaders hold their European Council summit.
It is an uphill task, overshadowed both by genuine policy differences and by haggling over the jobs of Commission and Council presidents, foreign policy chief, parliamentary speaker and director of the European Central Bank.
“It won’t be easy, the Greens are very strict on certain subjects,” an EPP source said.
Green group co-chair Philippe Lamberts confirmed this approach.
“We will weigh up in the coming weeks which of the promises the other groups made are to be translated into fact,” he told AFP.
If the mainstream groups coalesce around a programme, they should have a comfortable majority. An EPP-led group might even be able to operate as a threesome, but the others can not do without the conservatives’ 179 seats.
– Authoritarian premier –
The EPP stands behind Weber, insisting the Commission presidency is theirs by right, while the left clings to that hope that Holland’s Frans Timmermans might squeak through.
“We’re the biggest group in parliament, we have a majority on the Council. We want the Commission. For all the other jobs, we’re ready to negotiate,” the EPP source said.
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“The EPP will vote for no other candidate. The EPP will vote against any other candidate.”
The other camps are unimpressed by the EPP’s champion but, as one party official told AFP: “They are indispensable if we’re to form a majority and it’s hard to see how we stop them getting the Commission.”
The right’s intransigence looks likely to doom the June summit to failure and to prolong the hunt for a president through the summer.
Macron and several more leaders are against both Weber — dismissed by many in Brussels as a lightweight — and paying much attention to parliamentary arithmetic.
Among the 28 heads of government around the summit table, eight hail from EPP-affiliated parties, even if one of them, Hungary’s authoritarian premier Viktor Orban, has said he opposes Weber.
Until last week, the social democrats were at a disadvantage, but national election wins in Finland and Denmark brought them up to seven leaders and reduced the liberals to seven.
By Dave Clark and Christian Spillmann