EU leaders try anew to end impasse on top jobs

Despite signs of progress since talks began on June 30, EU leaders remained divided over a Franco-German compromise on who will become the new chief of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.
Despite signs of progress since talks began on June 30, EU leaders remained divided over a Franco-German compromise on who will become the new chief of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European Union leaders meet in Brussels on Tuesday (July 2) for the third straight day of talks aimed at defusing fresh power struggles in a bid to fill the bloc's top jobs.

The 28 EU leaders who will meet from 11am local time (5pm Singapore time) face a new landscape following the May elections in which the dominant political forces lost some of their clout.

"I think that in a few hours (on Tuesday) we will be able to reach an agreement," French President Emmanuel Macron said after an 18-hour summit session ended in acrimony on Monday. "Let's get serious," an irritated Macron said.

Despite signs of progress since the talks began on Sunday, the leaders remained divided over a Franco-German compromise on who will become the new chief of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.

With challenges from climate change to illiberal democracy, the EU must reform the slow way it takes decisions and avoid becoming "hostage" to political groups, he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said she still "hoped that with goodwill a compromise will be feasible" when the leaders meet anew on Tuesday.

The compromise Merkel and Macron forged on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan last Saturday called for Dutch Social Democrat Frans Timmermans to head the commission, rather than his conservative rival, German Manfred Weber.

Weber would instead be put forward for election as Speaker of the European Parliament, where he leads the largest political bloc. A liberal candidate would succeed Donald Tusk as president of the European Council of national leaders.

But when Merkel put this to fellow centre-right leaders in the European People's Party (EPP), several rebelled and the summit was thrown into crisis as heads of government shuttled between side meetings on Sunday evening and Monday.

 
 
 
 

INAUGURAL PARLIAMENT SESSION

The EPP is still the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, but it is no longer the dominant force it was before the May elections.

The liberals, which include Macron supporters, are increasingly assertive over the choice of top jobs after they and the Greens made huge gains in those polls.

Even though the Social Democrat bloc also lost ground, Timmermans, the commission's vice-president, emerged as a compromise candidate to head the powerful executive.

Under a new plan, Timmermans would run the commission and the EPP's Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian who is currently CEO of the World Bank, would become European Council president, several European sources told AFP.

But Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov later told his country's news media in Brussels that the liberals were blocking Georgieva for council chief.

Meanwhile, sources said, a liberal could replace outgoing diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini of Italy. That could either be Belgian prime minister Charles Michel or Danish politician Margrethe Vestager, the current anti-trust commissioner.

As for Speaker of the European Parliament, the sources added, Weber could serve the first term of two and a half years, then Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who leads the liberal group in the assembly, serve the next term.

An EU summit on June 20-21 had already failed to break the stalemate over candidates.

For a nominee to go forward, he or she must secure the backing of 21 of the 28 EU leaders, representing 65 per cent of the bloc's population.

The European Parliament, which is also involved in the decision-making, is to debate the candidates in its inaugural post-election session starting on Tuesday.