BRUSSELS – The European Council, responsible for selecting the main officials of the European Union, began on Sunday its summit in Brussels after a delay of three-and-a-half hours due to earlier consultations among the participants regarding which politicians will hold which posts.
In play is the presidency of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, as well as the post of Community foreign minister and the president of the European Central Bank.
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was scheduled on Sunday evening to propose that delegates select the president of the European Commission in the next legislature from the bloc’s social-democratic political family comprising assorted parties.
The main obstacle, according to diplomatic sources, is the current division within the European People’s Party (EPP), where some of the members oppose allowing the social-democrats, who have Dutch politician and diplomat Frans Timmermans as their candidate, to secure the European Commission presidency.
The Party of European Socialists, which came in second in the recent bloc elections behind the EPP, had nominated Timmermans for the post.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had developed a plan to push Timmermans for EC president on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. According to the so-called “Sushi deal,” the 28 EU leaders would nominate Timmermans for the post rather than his conservative rival, Germany’s Manfred Weber, who would become speaker of the European Parliament.
A liberal candidate would become president of the EU Council of national leaders.
But, when Merkel unveiled her plan other center-right EPP leaders just before the emergency summit, several of them balked and a series of side meetings to figure out an alternative strategy delayed the start of the main summit.
Merkel said Sunday upon her arrival at the summit that the negotiations will not be easy given that the members of the Eurochamber “are determined, at least with two big parliamentary groups, (to pursue) the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ principle and, at the same time, the largest (single) political force, the EPP, doesn’t have a majority in the European Parliament.”
Meanwhile, Macron mentioned Timmermans but also conservative French politician and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier or Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager and called on the parties to respect “geographic and gender balances.”
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he remained committed to Timmermans.
The possibility that Timmermans might head the EC bothers the Visegrad Group – including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – since they feel that as the first vice president of the current Commission he has intruded into questions about the rule of law in their countries.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that it would be “humiliating” for the EPP, which won the European elections, to accept Timmermans as Commission president.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she was certain that European politicians would have a “constructive discussion” on the matter, although she did not comment on who she favored for the various offices.
Meanwhile, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that the EPP should not hand over the EC presidency so easily and “without a fight.”
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said upon arriving at the summit that he expected a “long marathon” session.
Austrian Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein said that her country feels that it’s important for the final result to be a “balanced ... majority” decision reflecting the popular will as expressed in the recent election, adding that her country will support the candidate who has a “constructive majority.”
Meanwhile, the current president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said that his successor must be someone “who can listen,” although he stated that Timmermans is “very capable and one of whose who will be taken into account this evening.”