BRUSSELS – European Union leaders began contentious talks to assign new leadership of the bloc as they seek to revive its fortunes after some of them suffered a rebuke from voters in elections last week.
At least four senior positions, including president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and a new European Central Bank chief, are supposed to be filled by the end of October.
Yet over a three-course dinner on Tuesday, leaders got a taste of what promises to be protracted negotiations to pick people who can help the bloc deal with its myriad political and economic challenges.
Advocates of a strong EU face pressure to deliver. On Sunday night, voters rejected many of the national political parties that have dominated EU decision making for years.
However, they also gave Brussels another chance to prove that it can deal with their concerns, supporting previously marginal European parties, like the Greens, as well as nationalist euroskeptics.
Leaders were bogged down on Tuesday night over questions of qualifications, political affiliations, having big and small countries represented as well as those from different geographical regions, and a desire for gender parity.
“In the real world, a perfect balance will be difficult to obtain,” said European Council President Donald Tusk, the summit host, whose term ends by the end of November.
Tusk will seek to get an agreement on four names by the end of June. He will negotiate both with EU leaders and the bloc’s Parliament, which needs to approve the commission president. The commission proposes new laws, negotiates foreign-trade deals and can penalize companies for anticompetitive behavior.
Other new posts to be awarded include a new president of the European Council, the body representing EU leaders’ interests, and a new EU foreign-policy chief, Tusk said.
But confusion seemed to reign over what was in the package of posts. Leaders don’t formally approve the president of the European Parliament, but both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte included that post on their lists.
In the past, the top parliamentary job was a consolation prize for the region or political party that felt misrepresented.
On Tuesday, a majority of pro-EU parties in the European Parliament said they wanted the next commission president to be picked from among the candidates the party blocs had chosen to spearhead their EU elections campaigns. That was how the current commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, got the job in 2014 after he led the center-right European People’s Party to first place in those elections.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed that process. But other leaders disagreed, arguing that EU law stipulates it’s the leaders’ decision to make.
Tusk described the parliament’s top candidate process as a “political invention” but said that leaders agreed not disqualify any candidate who emerged from that process.
Complicating the Parliament’s case: widespread doubts about the center-right candidate Manfred Weber, a Bavarian who has been an EU lawmaker for 15 years but never held a ministerial post. Weber’s center-right group was again the largest party bloc following last week’s elections though it lost dozens of seats.
Portugal’s Socialist leader Antonio Costa said he sees “no circumstances” under which the German candidate could take up the commission presidency.
Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini said his country, as well as some of its Eastern European neighbors, don’t consider the European Parliament’s role in choosing the candidate “to be the Holy Bible” and would prefer someone who is “young, dynamic and with a lot of power.”
Merkel said Weber remained her candidate and told leaders who criticized his qualifications that “you can’t go around saying that experience accumulated in the European Parliament doesn’t count. That’s no way to treat each other.”
French President Emmanuel Macron named several other candidates he believed were fit for the job – Weber not among them – including Michel Barnier, a former French foreign minister and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. Barnier has run a proxy campaign to win support for the top job in recent weeks.
But he hardly cuts a fresh face either: Barnier, who has been in and out of Brussels for the past two decades, lost out as the EPP’s lead candidate to Juncker in 2014.
Other names in the mix are the former Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans from the Socialists and Margrethe Vestager, a former Danish economy minister who has been directing the EU’s antitrust body for the past five years.
If she were chosen, Vestager, who was dubbed the EU’s “tax lady” by President Trump because of the EU’s fines against United States tech companies, would be the first female Commission chief. She’s being backed by several leaders from her centrist Liberals bloc.
The nationality of the commission chief will be a factor in the selection of Mario Draghi’s successor as head of the ECB, as member countries usually don’t get two top jobs.
France and Germany both have candidates for the ECB job, as well as Finland.
If Weber fails to get a majority among peers and among EU leaders for the commission post, Merkel might be inclined to push for Jens Weidmann, the current head of the German central bank, as ECB chief.
In a sign of the complexity ahead, even the decision-making process is subject to debate.
“I would slightly favor to separate the ECB decision, but I’m not sure that I’m in a majority on this one,” said Rutte, who said it would be difficult for leaders to agree on all names by the end of June.