François Hollande does not want to chair the European Council when he steps down as French president in May, aides said yesterday (19 January), denying a report that he hoped to succeed Donald Tusk in overseeing negotiations on Britain’s exit from the EU.
“Completely untrue,” one called the report in the Le Parisien newspaper, which cited unnamed sources that claimed the Socialist hoped to move to Brussels to take a job that might fall vacant within weeks of Hollande leaving office after the presidential election run-off on 7 May.
Tusk, a former Polish prime minister whose role chairing summits of European Union leaders has made him the broker for a deal to usher the United Kingdom out of the bloc, has yet to say whether he wants to stay on when his first 30-month term ends on 31 May.
The current populist Polish government of Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, has no real esteem for Tusk, who was the co-founder and leader of the EPP-affiliated Civic Platform (PO), now in opposition.
Tusk, who served as prime minister between 2007 and 2014, has recently infuriated PiS with extremely critical comments.
Tusk was appointed to the Council’s top job for a two-and-a-half year mandate that started on 1 December 2014. This means that his mandate expires in June 2017 and that a decision to keep him in the position or to replace him should be made early this year.
It is assumed that the candidate for president of the European Council be strongly supported by his own country but the treaties say nothing on the matter.
A socialist Council President?
A socialist Council President could come handy at a time when the presidents of the three main EU institutions are from the centre-right EPP.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker got the job after having won the European elections as leading candidate of the EPP and Antonio Tajani, from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, was elected European Parliament president following the resignation of Martin Schulz, the SPD politician who decided to return to German politics.
European socialists insist that either Juncker or Tusk should be replaced.
Hollande’s unpopularity at home – he did not even seek a second term – is no job reference for taking the helm of an EU that is strugling to battle euroscepticism.
“It would continue the unhappy tradition of the EU bureaucracy being the dumping ground for failed and unelectable politicians,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a British lawmaker in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative party.
Several Brussels diplomats and EU government officials said they had heard no talk of Hollande, 62, seeking the Council job. One Council member told Reuters it sounded like a “crazy rumour” – but that there could yet be some logic behind such a move.
Hollande has a good relationship with conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Paris and Berlin will want the Council’s 27 remaining members to stick together as they negotiate strict terms for Britain’s divorce.
But Hollande’s tough line that Britain will suffer after Brexit has not endeared him to May’s government. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson this week compared the French president to a World War Two camp guard administering “punishment beatings”, a remark that drew its own round of outrage from continental politicians.
Having two Frenchmen in key positions during the Brexit talks may be too much. Michel Barnier, the former French Commissioner in the Barroso team, is the executive’s Brexit negotiator.
The Council president is chosen by the EU heads of state and government, ideally by consensus but, if not, by a majority vote that denies any veto.