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EU summit: Centre-left Timmermans tipped for top post

Rivals for EU Commission presidency, in Brussels debate, 15 May 19Image copyright
Reuters

Image caption

“Spitzenkandidaten”, L-R: Margrethe Vestager (liberal, Danish); Frans Timmermans (centre-left, Dutch); Manfred Weber (centre-right, German)

EU leaders are meeting in Brussels for talks to decide who should get the EU’s top jobs, including a successor to Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Reports say the current favourite for Commission president is Dutch centre-left politician Frans Timmermans. He is already a deputy to Mr Juncker.

However, politicians in Poland, Hungary and Romania dislike the way he has enforced the EU rule of law policy.

The centre-right bloc wants Germany’s Manfred Weber to get the top job.

He is the European People’s Party (EPP) candidate under the “Spitzenkandidat” (lead candidate) procedure, which the European Parliament supports as a democratic way to reflect the European election outcome.

Media captionWho’s in the running for Juncker’s post and other EU top jobs?

But while the EPP is still the biggest bloc, it does not have a majority, and French President Emmanuel Macron is among those opposing the “Spitzenkandidat” system. The May EU elections produced a more fragmented parliament.

The Commission drafts EU laws, oversees national budgets, enforces EU treaties and negotiates international trade deals.

The rare Sunday summit was called because EU leaders failed on 20 June to agree on candidates for the Commission president’s job and other top posts: European Council president (to replace Donald Tusk); high representative for foreign policy (to replace Federica Mogherini); European Parliament president and European Central Bank president.

The leaders are beginning a working dinner. If necessary the talks will continue at breakfast on Monday, Mr Tusk says.

  • Who is in the running for the EU’s top job?
  • EU leaders fail to agree top job candidates
  • What is the EU and how does it work?

Why this political wrangling?

The top EU appointments – especially for Commission chief – sharpen not only national rivalries but also those between the European Council and the European Parliament, which is the only directly elected EU institution.

The “Spitzenkandidat” procedure was launched by the parliament in 2014, so keeping it is a matter of pride for MEPs.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long backed her ally Mr Weber for the top job, pitting her against President Macron and other critics who argue he lacks the necessary experience, as he has never held a government post.

Arriving at the Brussels summit, Mrs Merkel said “it looks like the talks won’t be very easy”.

Mr Macron said the leaders should nominate two men and two women for the four key posts. The fifth – parliament president – is mainly in the hands of MEPs.

The wrangling also involves striking the right balance to satisfy a majority of the 28 member states – a big challenge.

The May elections saw big gains for the liberals – including Mr Macron’s alliance – and Greens, at the expense of the long-established centre-right and centre-left blocs. Nationalists also made gains.

  • EU elections: What are the clear trends?

EU rules demand that the top appointments respect the EU’s geographical and demographic diversity, and gender balance is also a factor.

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Getty Images

Image caption

The EU’s Donald Tusk and Federica Mogherini will both have left by December

German media quoted Mrs Merkel as saying on Saturday the choice was between “the two Spitzenkandidaten”, implying Mr Timmermans of the Socialist group and Mr Weber.

Reuters news agency, quoting Brussels diplomats, says the emerging compromise is to give Mr Weber the post of parliament president, and make Mr Timmermans – who has strong French and Spanish support – Commission president.

According to a plan reported by Bloomberg, in that scenario Belgium’s liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel would succeed Donald Tusk as European Council president and the foreign policy post would go to Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel, a centre-right politician like Mr Weber.

Hungary’s government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs has already tweeted that appointing Mr Timmermans to the top EU job was “completely unacceptable”.

How are the posts decided and what do they do?

The EU treaties say the government leaders – the European Council – have to nominate a Commission president, but they do not have to choose a “Spitzenkandidat”.

They have to take account of the EU election results when they decide. They choose a candidate by qualified majority – that is:

  • if 72% of member states vote in favour (21 out of the 28)
  • and those states represent at least 65% of the total EU population

The pressure is on, because the new parliament meets on 2 July, and at their 15-18 July session, MEPs are to vote on the leaders’ nominee for Commission president.

This is the top job, because the Commission drafts EU laws and enforces the rules. The new president is to take office on 1 November.

The European Council president is to be elected by the EU leaders by qualified majority, and should take office on 1 December. He/she chairs EU summits and steers the bloc’s broad strategy, while the Commission deals with the fine details.

The High Representative for foreign policy runs the EU External Action Service (EEAS), dealing with major challenges such as Iran’s nuclear programme, Kosovo and EU interventions in Africa.

A favourite to become ECB president, taking over from Mario Draghi, is Jens Weidmann, head of the German Bundesbank. The ECB had to calm markets when the euro’s future was threatened and manage the Greek debt crisis. The ECB has enormous influence, given continuing concern about the euro.

The European Parliament president steers MEPs’ debates and their votes on most EU legislation.