European Council negotiates top jobs

If you follow the top-jobs debate in the European Union you may know about the stalemate since 26 May. The stalemate is political and institutional. It is institutional between the European Council and the European Parliament, who says that the next European Commission President should come from among the Spitzen-candidates. The views in the European Council are not as narrow.

The political stalemate is between all the political groups, now 7, who emerged post-elections. The outcome is inconclusive in the sense that it is obvious what is necessary: the conservatives of the EPP, the progressives of the S&D and centrists of the RE need to agree on a deal. Not in the Parliament, but in the European Council, that is prone to national, not party political, thinking.

Hence the situation. For weeks Mr Manfred Weber has been saying: as a candidate of the European People’s Party that came first in the European Parliament, I should be the next Commission President. Simple and flat.

Over the past weeks, however, Mr Frans Timmermans has build a much bigger coalition behind him. The progressive coalition backing Mr Timmermans enjoys support of the social-democrats, the centrists/liberals of the European Council as well as Mr Tsipras of Greece, whose Syriza’s MEPs seat with the far-left group GUE/NGL. In the European Parliament, the latest figures suggest a slim majority for the progressive candidate without the EPP onboard: the 26 June figures suggest that 154 S&D MEPs with 108 RE MEPs, 75 Green MEPs and 41 GUE/NGL should be enough: 378 MEPs out of 751.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron,
30 June 2019

Mr Emmanuel Macron of France said two things from the start: a non to Mr Weber and a non to the Spitzen-candidates system. If he was to be limited to only one non it would be a non à Monsieur Weber.

Ms Angela Merkel of Germany said two things from the start: a ja to Mr Weber and a ja to the Spitzen-candidates system. If she was to be limited to only one ja it would be a ja zum Spitzenkandidaten-System.

It was only natural for Mr Donald Tusk of no country to seek that opportunity to negotiate a deal between the two. At first, he was taken by a surprise in Osaka. He thought that the Spitzenkandidaten system was dead as during the last European Council there was no agreement on any of the candidates. Now, they are back, or at least one of them. Mr Timmermans, in a package deal. Backed by Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Incidentally – or not – those are the three countries that are the largest states in the hands of each of the families – Ms Merkel and EPP, Mr Macron and RE, Mr Sanchez and S&D. The Netherlands is the home country of Mr Timmermans.

So voila, Mr Timmermans as part of the Osaka compromise reached on the margins of the last G-20 summit. The deal includes the party-politics compromise package for Mr Weber: the 5-year long presidency of the European Parliament, EUCO presidency for the Renew Europe and the High Representative to the EPP.

30 June: V-4 is back!

Or so it seemed. Before the Parliament could reject that idea over its first session beginning tomorrow – for who should lead them to be decided behind close doors in Japan – the Sunday European Council says no!

Yes, there are 22 more voting members of the European Council beyond the ones who went to Osaka: leaders of Germany, France, Italy and the UK are the full members of the G-20 club and leaders of the Netherlands and Spain were among the invited guests.

The European Council members were not exactly “happy” with the package presented to them as the Osaka compromise. The two critical angles were relevant. One is party political. The other is regional, hence, a traditional European Council-politicking.

The party political ‘surprise’ is major. It is the EPP European Council members who say to Ms Merkel you do not represent us; it is the PMs of Latvia and Croatia who are the EPP representatives. The EPP EUCO members of Croatia, Ireland, Bulgaria and Hungary are on the record as being critical of the Osaka compromise. After all, should we stick to the leading candidates, shouldn’t we back Mr Weber? And if we were to bury the Spitzen-system and look beyond it, shouldn’t we be looking at other EPP candidates?

The real question for the EPP is this: what is more important to you, the temporary political gain (an EPP politician as Commission President) or a longer term contribution to the system that is genuinely democratic, creates a lasting impact? Instinctively quite a few of the EPP leaders reacted critically, but will their criticism hold long enough?

Jean-Claude Juncker, 30 June 2019

The national political surprise is partly surprising. When five years ago Mr Jean-Claude Juncker was voted against the judgment of the leaders of the UK and Hungary, Brussels shrugged. There was a major majority behind the new Commission President anyway and that was what mattered.

Hence it is no surprise to count out today the governments of UK (Brexit), Italy (dominated by far-right), Poland (ECR) and Hungary (not quite in line with EPP). That’s four out of 28. One needs 21 voting EUCO members to appoint a candidate for the new Commission President. The ‘surprise’ is the Sunday Visegrad-Four statement against Mr Timmermans is shared by the nominally liberal PM of Czechia Andrej Babiš and Peter Pellegrini of Slovakia, who is nominally a S&D member (like Mr Timmermans). They both are saying ‘ne and ‘nie‘ to the Dutch politician.

Visegrad-4 with the French President.
Left to right: Pellegrini-Macron-Morawiecki-Babiš-Orban.

Therefore Sunday ends with a combination of de-franchised EPP EUCO members who feel partisan to the idea that Mr Weber candidacy should be abandoned and a regional Central European negative sentiment to Mr Timmermans’ candidacy (Mr Morawiecki, Poland’s PM: “Mr Timmermans is divisive” towards Central Europe) could kill the Dutch Social-Democrat candidacy.

Monday Morning Meeting

If you do not sleep your ability to stand ground becomes limited. What if you are jet-lagged on top of this fatigue?

What seems like the next move is to see who is against the Franco-German offer and work on them one-by-one. Hence the long night bilateral meetings run by Mr Tusk. The purpose is to work on the sceptics and convince them, one by one, to build a majority and a wider consensus.

The goal is to avoid voting. Probably very few people expect there will be no vote at the end of the road. But the purpose is not to have a consensus, but to seek one. The greater the majority behind the new Commission President the greater his legitimacy to work “on behalf of the Union”. Therefore it is not a question how to reach 21, the question is to squeeze the maximum amount of leaders behind the chosen one.

Two new developments take place. First, Mr Pellegrini of Slovakia faces an increased pressure to break off the V-4 opposition and, a Social-Democrat to a Social-Democrat, support Mr Timmermans. Will he stand the ground? If so, with whom, his political family or his regional allies?

Second, the Polish and Italian Prime Minister (Mr Giuseppe Conte) ask for a secret ballot. The Polish leader most likely counts on more leaders to be secretly against Mr Timmermans than openly against him in the European Council. The Italian leader most likely hopes he can secretly vote in favour of the candidate without bearing the political consequences of the vote back home.

Most importantly, the breakfast. Clearly a sort of compromise is in the air. All the media reporting overnight are positive that the negotiations have shifted from who should be the Commission President to what’s the packeged deal for everybody else. Everybody else, meaning, the Social-Democrats winning the main prize cannot claim any other of the top jobs.

At the morning it seems that the Osaka agreement S&D for Commission President, RE for EUCO President and EPP for the Parliament and the High Representative will be shifter around.

It seems that the EPP criticism brings back the issue of EUCO Presidency for the EPP together with the EP’s half term, this way RE could potentially seek positions at the top of the Parliament in two-and-half years and the High Representative. “The Liberals are uncompromising for this post”, says the EPP EUCO member from Bulgaria, Mr Boyko Borissov.

Still, the name of Ms Kristalina Georgieva is circulated as the most likely replacement of Mr Tusk. As a Bulgarian, a World Bank CEO and a former vice-president of the European Commission, Ms Georgieva ticks a lot of boxes: a woman, an Eastern-European, and an EPP politician. The fact she has never been elected to any office? Not a EUCO problem. The fact she was never a EUCO member? Oh wait, really? She is still largely trusted, served 6 years on the European Commission as a Commissioner and Vice-President of the College before taking a job at the World Bank. Back in 2014 she was tipped as a potential High Representative. She is a popular candidate, despite never having served on the European Council. However, Mr Borissov says in a conference post-summit that she is not interested in the job: “the only suitable job for her is Commission President”

It looks like EPP might secure one more job, something of a consolation prize for Mr Weber: presidency of the Parliament. This might be a smart move to calm the nerves of the conservative bench-sitters of the EPP, ECR and ID to win at least the Weber-supporters for the Osaka compromise.

One of the outstanding questions is can EUCO secure Mr Weber a 5 year long presidency? Clearly this is something for Mr Weber to fight for. Clearly this is something that Mr Guy Verhofstadt has an eye for, too.

Second of the outstanding questions is the future High Representative. The person should be a liberal (or EPP), and there is the outgoing Belgian available and willing, apparently. Mr Charles Michel lost the national elections recently and looks for a new job. Clearly two liberal Belgians is not too much for Europe if one is a Flemish and another a Walloon, is it?

Hence the looking for a lady-liberal candidate is still on. Keep your eyes open. The name of Ms Margrethe Vestager comes to mind, except for her the package deal foresees a “First Vice Presidency” of the European Commission. The job Mr Timmermans had in the Juncker Commission.

Mr Aamann is Mr Tusk’s spokesperson.

This is when the EUCO meeting is suspended. I guess not enough sleep and more work for those national leaders back home. The meeting is scheduled to re-start tomorrow, 11 AM.

Et alors?

Zero. There is no deal under all of the deal is made, goes a popular Brussels saying. Hence Mr Timmermans cannot catch up on the sleep just yet. When the national leaders are exposed to today’s national criticism back home there might be new dynamics in the Europa building tomorrow. Expect more fuss than normally in Bratislava, Berlin and Rome. In Berlin Merkel might prevail, after all she runs a coalition government with SPD. In Bratislava Mr Pellegrini has some explanation to do. In Rome Mr Conte will be told what to do.

Are the V-4 leaders disruptors in the EU system of governing vetoing one EUCO after another? Is the European stardom of Angela Merkel gone?

One. Clearly Mr Weber is too conservative for the progressives. A different EPP candidate could be acceptable, says Mr Macron.

Two. Clearly there is a problem in the EPP. Mr Vladimír Bilčík, a newly elected MEP from Slovakia tells this blog, “The priority of EPP has been the Commission Presidency. EPP has the highest number of MEPs in the house. Period.” The European People’s Party is no longer a simple extension of the German CDU and should not be treated as such. Germans are important, but there is no room for a single-hand rule. Probably Mr Weber, whose political experience is largely based in the EP, knows this better than Ms Merkel…

Three. Merkel is weak in Germany, Merkel is weak in Europe. There is a time clicking on the powers of the German Chancellor. The longest serving member of the institution, she looks into the legacy. This is why the Spitzen-system is more important than the fate of Mr Weber. The looking tired (lack of sleep, jet-lag) Angela Merkel at the Monday midday press conference says that EUCO seeks “the highest possible consensus” as 21 is not enough a figure.

Angela Merkel’s press conference, 1 July 2019, source:

Four, will the Franco-German solutions work? Mr Macron did not want Mr Weber. Ms Merkel did want to save the process. They made a deal and Mr Tusk tries to deliver. Still, there are reservations. Mr Conte of Italy says at his press briefing: “We were 10-11 countries that expressed doubts on this method”. He is also disillusioned about the Spitzen-process: “Italy has nothing against Timmermans, I consider him a valuable person and of great experience,” Conte said. “However, if he’s proposed through this method, I’m forced to indicate a reserve on his name.” See how the summit unfolded here.

Five. V4 is strong, but their strength is negative. This is not a source of inspiration. There needs to be a positive power emanating from this important European region. Mr Morawiecki is proud to say what they do not want, instead is short of saying what he actually wants. It is a “nay, nay, nay” crying baby that is happy something is broken. I would hope for Poland/Hungary to move from let us govern the way we want to this is what we want to do. Let’s talk how we could reach this together. Only together one be successful, especially on the climate/energy challenges. There is a room for this shift. Fingers crossed for the Finnish Council Presidency, which aims to put the issue of 50% decarbonisation back on the EU agenda by the end of the year.

Six. If Mr Timmermans is elected this is bad news for Mr Morawiecki and the Polish leadership. As the most exposed Mr Morawiecki might witness something close to humiliation. The critics are already framing their positions. Take a popular political journalist, Konrad Piasecki: “The ruling camp has invested into fighting against the candidacy of Mr Timmermans. If they fail to have a success they shall have loses: diplomatic, political and in public relations”.

Seven. What do we know? All we know that the endorsement of Mr Timmermans is most likely tomorrow. We know there is a likely vote to take place tomorrow. And that’s all we know. We do not know who are the other people in the package, except for a room for Mr Weber and Ms Vestager should be expected somewhere in the final set-up. Who will be the Eastern European in the mix? Will there be two ladies among the top-jobs, however broadly the ‘top-jobs’ are defined? Who will vote for Mr Timmermans and who will vote against?

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