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Proposal to nominate Timmermans for President of the European Commission divides the Member States

In a bid to break the deadlock in nominating the ‘Top Jobs’ in the institutions of the European Union, heads of state and government met on 30 June in Brussels. Despite lengthy negotiations and countless bi-laterals in the maze that is the Europa building, talks broke up at 4am on 1 June with no breakthrough.

With still no white smoke from the European Council’s Europa building, President Tusk has announced he will reconvene the summit on 2 July at 11 am. As the European Parliament is taking its inaugural plenary in Strasbourg on 2 July, time is running out for the European Council to propose a package of personal to lead the European Union over the coming 5 years. As the meetings are adjourned to Tuesday, we understand this is the latest proposal discussed by leaders:

  • Frans Timmermans (NL): European Commission President

  • Kristalina Georgieva (BG): European Council President

  • Manfred Weber (DE): European Parliament President (5 years)

  • Charles Michel (BE): High Representative/Vice-President of the European Commission

  • Margrethe Vestager (DK): 1st Vice-President of European Commission

What was discussed so late into the morning? What is keeping the European Council from agreeing to a package deal? Who is more likely to replace Jean-Claude Juncker?

Former President of the Parliament plays a supporting role from the wings

Whilst much of the focus has been on the bargaining between the EU 28 leaders, a former heavyweight of EU politics has been calling the shots from behind the scenes - former President of the European Parliament Martin Schultz. It has been reported and confirmed by key sources that Schultz made contact with Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa to suggest an approach to break the impasse which would honour the Spitzenkandidat system and see the Socialists take a key leadership position.

Costa and Schulz agreed upon a plan that would see Timmermans becoming President of the Commission and Weber taking the Presidency of the Parliament. Timmermans was made aware of this new approach and sought the support of Renew Europe and the Greens. Even with the S&D, Renew Europe and Green votes in Parliament, Timmermans would not have the backing of a majority of MEPs. Yet, he and his fellow plotters took the calculated risk that Weber’s EPP would not vote with far-right groups against Timmermans becoming Commission President. Having seen a way through the deadlock, Weber was informed of this move. At a senior conservatives’ dinner on 24 June, Weber, Merkel and the chief of the EPP - Joseph Daul - agreed to the Socialists’s plan, recognising that the EPP’s chance of securing the Commission Presidency had lost momentum. It seemed that a solution was there for the taking.

Having secured an entente between Weber and Timmermans, the deal was taken to the European leaders at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Merkel took the lead in reaching out to Rutte, Macron, and Sanchez and bringing them on board. Her offer of a this compromise package which would see a swift end to the current paralysis was accepted by those leaders - and the state was set for a swift discussion on 30 June which would see an end to the stalemate.

What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, a lot could go wrong.

Centre right leaders hit back

Throughout Sunday evening and early into Monday morning, other EPP leaders were scathing of this plan to see a socialist in the top floor of the Berlaymont.

Among the national leaders to speak out against the proposal were Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, , and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. That opposition, along with Poland, Romania and other countries that had already voiced resistance to Timmermans, was enough to make Timmermans’ ascent to the European Commission Presidency, and avoiding an institutional crisis, look extremely difficult.

The hostility was particularly fierce from Poland as Timmermans has been the force behind the Commission’s proposal to activate Article 7 against the Polish government for breaching of the rule of law. This article would have seen Poland losing its voting rights in the Council of the European Union. In a statement to the press on Sunday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gave a scathing summary of his approach to Timmermans’ candidacy: “He is a man who does not understand Central Europe, does not understand Europe that comes from the post-communist collapse.”

With such resistance from a swathe of Central and Eastern European countries, were Timmerman's candidacy for President of the Commision put to a Qualified Majority Vote, there could have been a blocking majority.

EU split - East Vs West?

Merkel - long the titan of centre-right politics in the European Union - was unable to cajole, persuade and force her colleagues in the EPP to accept her comprimise solution which would have seen Weber installed as President of the Parliament. Failure to do this led to another long night of discussion with no positive outcome.

Whilst this event could be seen in isolation, it can be viewed through a wider lens.

The political landscape is drastically different from 2015 when the last EU top jobs were decided. Merkel was at the political power and was master of all she surveyed.

Since then, the political harmony in the European centre-right has been severely strained and the power of Merkel at the European level is not what it was. At the root of this was the migration crisis which saw Central and Eastern European states rally against Merkel’s ‘welcoming’ stance to migrants. The hostility of countries such as Hungary to migrants is well documented and weakened the unity of the EPP and saw a split in the EU’s attitude to those 3rd nationals seeking shelter on a largely East-West axis.

Such a split has only grown over the years with the rule of law proceedings brought against Poland and most recently the EU’s efforts to become neutral by 2050 was rejected by central and eastern european countries.

Whilst difference in opinions are of course to be expected in the EU, what we are witnessing is a gradual hardening of positions between governments who are not willing to compromise on key issues. Such a trend bodes ill for the next 5 years. The disagreements we are seeing in choosing the EU’s next top jobs could only be the beginning.

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