EU heads of state and government on Tuesday night in Brussels (27 May) gave a mandate to Council President Herman Van Rompuy to start consultations in view of electing a new Commission President, leaving the door open to other options, rather than nominating the winning centre-right candidate in the EU elections, Jean-Claude Juncker.
The special EU summit, which took place two days after the European elections, ended with a lacklustre statement of Van Rompuy, who said that this “first discussion” had been “useful”, a diplomatic euphemism for inconclusive.
Van Rompuy, a former Belgian Prime Minister, has been assigned the responsibility of conducting Belgian-style consultations, to elect the next Commission President. With its complex political structure, Belgium has gathered enormous know-how on the formation of coalition cabinets.
The next Commission President must have the support of both a qualified majority of EU leaders, and be able to command a large majority in European Parliament, in order to pass difficult legislation.
Van Rompuy made it clear he would not embark on a collision course with the European Parliament, saying that the Council took note of a declaration of the Presidents of the political groups of the EP, adopted hours before, and that he will be in touch with those Presidents, as soon as their groups are formed.
The Parliament has stated that the candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), Jean Claude Juncker, will be the first to attempt to form the required majority, as this group won the elections. The EPP has 213 MEPs, followed by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with 191 and the liberals (ALDE) with 64.
The name of Juncker was however not even mentioned by Van Rompuy in his statement, a clear indication that leaders keep all their options open.
Merkel: new candidates still acceptable
Speaking at her own press conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed this impression by stating that the Council is bound to come up with its own proposal for candidates under the Lisbon Treaty.
"As a member of the EPP, I proposed Jean-Claude Juncker as President for the European Commission. I supported him. I have not forgotten this one day after the election. But still I'm bound by the European treaties," Merkel told Brussels' press corps.
The German Chancellor, uncharacteristically upset while taking questions, added that it should still be acceptable to suggest new candidates to the Parliament. She said she prefers "thoroughness over speed", and not following the Treaty has previously moved the EU towards a catastrophe.
Merkel said that EU leaders had discussed new priorities for the Commission during dinner which include jobs, growth, energy and climate and new candidates would have to have a track record of good labour market proposals, sound public finances and good climate policies.
"One has to look at who one wants to cooperate with. We want to look at programmes, content and we will have the question of personality again. At the end, there will be a fairly broad tableau of persons on the table. Then one has to think of how one can accommodate the socialists, the EPP and so on," Merkel said.
"On the first day after the elections, you expect me to have everything solved? That's going too far."
British Prime Minister David Cameron chose in his communication not to focus on the election of the next Commission President, but rather on the need to reform Europe.
“We need an approach that recognizes that Brussels has become too big, too bossy, too interfering,” he said.
French president François Hollande also pleaded for reform, but of a different type.
“I want the mandate for this Commission to focus on growth, employment and energy - and more protection,” Hollande said.
The French President also said that the surge of the far-right in France needed to be seen in a European contest. Marine Le Pen's National Front won the European elections in France, with 24.85% of the vote, followed by the centre-right UMP at 20.8% and the Socialist Party, with 13.98%.
If one-in-four voters in France, a founding member of the EU, votes for the extreme right, then we have a problem. But it is not only a problem for France, it is a problem for Europe,” Hollande said.
The anti-Juncker group
An EU senior official told EurActiv that the EU leaders didn't discuss other names than that of Juncker, during their informal dinner. He made it clear, however, that Juncker's name “wasn't getting momentum”. The heads of the EU member states also discussed the effectiveness of the Spitzenkandidat system, the official said, but had for the most part been interested in discussing the Commission's future political priorities.
According to EurActiv sources from the EPP pre-summit meeting, two leaders, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Sweden’s Frederik Reinfeldt, openly spoke out against the Spitzenkandidaten system, a way of objecting to Juncker as Commission President.
The source said there appeared to be an 'anti-Juncker group led by Cameron, who is not a member of the EPP club, as he founded his own European Conservatives and Reformist (ECR) Group. The discussion in the EPP meeting was reportedly hectic and at the end, some leaders were asking each other if they understood what had been decided.
The source also said Merkel was supportive of the Spitzenkandidaten system and of Juncker, but made no strong statements to discipline the dissidents. At the Council doorstep Merkel declared: "Jean-Claude Juncker is our Spitzenkandidat."
Who else could it be?
In bilateral discussions at the EPP pre-summit, the name of IMF chief Christine Lagarde was reportedly mentioned. However, French Socialist sources have told EurActiv that it would be political suicide for Hollande to propose Lagarde, who is from the EPP camp and moreover, as IMF chief, has spearheaded austerity policies rejected by the European centre-left.
The two other alternative candidates mentioned by sources at the Council summit was Finland's Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen or Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. At the Council doorstep, Katainen, who will step down as prime minister next month as he is openly pursuing an EU top job, said that he hopes there won't be any political games concerning the election of the Commission President.
Meanwhile Thorning-Schmidt decided not to show up at the Party of European Socialists (PES) pre-Council meeting in downtown Brussels. She also declined to speak to journalists at the Council doorstep.
Hannes Swoboda, member of the European Parliament and President of the Socialist and Democrats group, tweeted: "Absurd that Juncker has our backing to start negotiations but is blocked in the European Council by his own EPP family!"
- 26-27 June: Next EU Council summit may decide to nominate a candidate for Commission President.