EU leaders suspend longest-ever talks without deal on top jobs

The 28 leaders are aiming to agree candidates for president of the European Commission, president of their own Council and a foreign policy chief.
The 28 leaders are aiming to agree candidates for president of the European Commission, president of their own Council and a foreign policy chief.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (REUTERS, AFP) - A European Union summit was suspended on Monday (July 1) after national leaders failed to reach agreement during 20 hours of talks on who should take over the bloc’s top jobs. 

Leaders of the EU’s 28 member-states had appeared close to a deal, with diplomats saying Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans was lined up for the job of European Commission president.

But that post was just one of five that need allocating, also including president of the European Central Bank. 

The talks will resume at 11am on Tuesday, an EU official said. 

Resistance to Mr Timmermans’ nomination came from eastern European nations as well as the centre-right European People’s Party, which wanted the EU chief executive job for its own political grouping. 

Asked what the main sticking point was, an EU official said: “The whole package.”

The summit marked a third attempt to fill the top posts for at least the next five years. 

The slow progress of those discussions, seeking to balance gender and reflect the make-up of the EU Parliament, underline broader decision-making problems facing the EU, which has struggled to respond to a series of crises, from migration to climate change and the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

France's President Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Brussels after coming to agreement on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

Under the so-called "Sushi deal", the 28 EU leaders would nominate Mr Timmermans as president of the European Commission, rather than his conservative rival German MEP Manfred Weber.

But, when Dr Merkel put this to fellow centre-right leaders in the EPP group immediately before the emergency summit, several rebelled, and the start of the talks was delayed as heads of government shuttled between side meetings.

After the leaders from the EPP group met, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic warned: "There is no support for what circulated in media today."

Irish premier Leo Varadkar was also pessimistic: "I think it's fair to say there's a lot of opposition to the proposal that was made in Osaka.

"From the EPP point of view, the vast majority of EPP prime ministers don't believe that we should give up the presidency of the Commission quite so easily without a fight," he said.

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.

 
 
 

Mr Timmermans, the outgoing vice-president of the Commission, spearheaded EU efforts to impose its vision of the rule of law on authoritarian-leaning eastern members and is already firmly opposed by Hungary and Poland.

The opposition to the Japan compromise would seem to kill off his chances.

"The EPP has announced that it doesn't accept the Osaka deal. The accord is dead, there'll be no agreement tonight," a senior party source told AFP, as EU officials announced that the start of the summit had been delayed.

But if Mr Timmermann's momentum was derailed, Mr Weber still faces opposition from the left and centre, and Mr Macron arrived at the summit in an upbeat mood, determined to push on with efforts to agree a top jobs package.

The 28 leaders are aiming to agree candidates for president of the European Commission, president of their own Council and a foreign policy chief.

The European Parliament will then vote for its own speaker this week, and a new director for the European Central Bank will be chosen later.

"The way things are presented, they will not be very simple consultations, to put it mildly," Dr Merkel, the bloc's most influential leader, said as she arrived.

Mr Macron, however, told reporters he expected a "constructive accord".

"I'm not pushing this candidate or that one," he said. "You've never heard me say that I'm stuck on this or that candidate."

He nevertheless reiterated the names of Mr Timmermans, Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager and French conservative Michel Barnier.

Mr Macron admitted he had been "hostile" to some candidates, implying Mr Weber.

He stressed that the four candidates nominated by the leaders must include two women and someone from eastern Europe.

Dr Merkel had discussed a four-person package at Saturday's G-20 summit with Mr Macron, Spanish Premier Pedro Sanchez and the Netherlands' Mark Rutte.

Historical mistake

One MEP told AFP that summit host Donald Tusk would present Mr Timmermans' candidacy for the Commission job, backed by four major countries.

But, as vice-president of the Commission for the past five years, Mr Timmermans has made enemies in the east of the Union.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in a letter to EPP leader Joseph Daul, said Mr Timmermans would be a "serious or even historical mistake".

Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki said: "Frans Timmermans is a candidate who deeply divides Europe and he certainly doesn't understand Central Europe."

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is attending her last EU summit. A spokesman said she would play a "constructive role" and would not abstain from any vote.

The EPP came out on top in last month European parliamentary elections, though with a historically low share of the vote and Mr Weber as its lead candidate.

EU competition commissioner Vestager, has long seen as a possible liberal pick. Mr Macron also cites Mr Barnier, the EU's respected Brexit negotiator.