BRUSSELS — EU leaders agreed Tuesday to aim for a package of top EU appointments by June, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron sparred over the selection process for the key post of European Commission president.
The informal EU summit in Brussels was a first chance to hash out the political consequences of last week’s European Parliament elections, which dealt losses to the main centrist parties. The elections started a new political cycle.
However, several EU leaders, notably Macron, are at odds with the parliament, whose political groups have nominated candidates for the commission presidency under a system of lead candidates that is not supported by all.
EU leaders have previously stressed that they will not be restricted by the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, which Macron described on Tuesday as a “prison.”
The next commission president must be nominated by two thirds of EU leaders, but also requires a majority in parliament.
The 28 EU leaders tasked European Council President Donald Tusk with finding an acceptable commission nominee by the time they next meet on June 20-21, alongside three other top jobs.
“There can be no automaticity” in the selection process, Tusk said after the talks. He will negotiate over the coming weeks with the parliament, as well as EU leaders.
Merkel called for a consensual approach, warning against creating “wounds” that would hamper the EU’s future ability to act.
The chancellor has put her weight behind the lead candidate of the European People’s Party, parliamentary chief Manfred Weber — a fellow German from the Bavarian sister party of her Christian Democratic Union.
But Macron insisted Tuesday that policies must come before names.
The challenges ahead — including climate change and economic issues — necessitate a candidate with “experiences either in one’s own country or in Europe that provide credibility and know-how,” the French president said ahead of the summit talks.
His comments appeared to be a dig at Weber, has no government experience and whose record on climate issues is less convincing than that of other candidates.
Macron cited EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager and commission Vice President Frans Timmermans — who are both declared candidates — as well as EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier as having the skills required.
Macron is not the only critic of the Spitzenkandidaten system.
The leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia don’t consider it the “Holy Bible,” said Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini on behalf of the so-called Visegrad group.
Meanwhile, several members of the liberal ALDE group with which Macron has aligned himself came out in favor of the liberal candidate, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager.
“There is no doubt that … Margrethe Vestager is the strongest card among the candidates that exist,” said Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, while his Luxembourg counterpart Xavier Bettel called her a “very strong candidate.”
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, a Socialist, said he was backing Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands as his group’s lead candidate, while showing respect for Vestager’s executive experience.
Under EU rules, national leaders nominate the commission president who then requires majority backing in parliament.
The odds are tough for Weber, with just eight EPP leaders clearly in favour of him among the bloc’s 28 member states. A ninth, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, does not support his candidacy.
The liberals, on the other hand, currently head nine governments, while just five countries have Socialist leaders.
Earlier Tuesday, the EPP, the Socialists and the Greens — but not ALDE — took a joint stand in favour of the Spitzenkandidaten system. However, they did not rally behind a single candidate.
Complex negotiations are underway, with Weber requiring the vote of at least 376 lawmakers in the 751-seat legislature. An alliance with the Socialists — the second-largest party — and the Greens would give him a slim majority.
“The European People’s Party is ready for all the necessary compromises,” Weber said on Tuesday. “We are ready to talk now with everyone.”
But the Socialists are backing their own lead candidate, Timmermans. The Greens have made overtures to other parties, with co-leader Ska Keller praising Vestager as a rare female candidate.
The commission has a staff of about 32,000 and is charged with proposing legislation and ensuring member states abide by EU rules.
The commission presidency is one of several top EU vacancies, alongside Tusk’s successor, the European Central Bank chief and the EU’s top diplomat.
The nominations should reflect a gender balance, as well as the EU’s geographic and political diversity, Tusk said, noting that at least two posts should go to women.
“This is at least my plan and also my personal ambition,” he added.
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