Initial battle lines were drawn between member states over who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President on Tuesday (28 May) as EU leaders met to discuss “no names, just process”, in preparation for a decisive summit in June.
European heads of states insisted there was no intention to begin debating names of individual candidates for the EU’s top jobs, only agreeing on the procedure to be followed up until their next meeting in June, where the question of personnel is meant to be resolved.
The 28 EU leaders gave European Council President Donald Tusk the mandate to consult the member states and the European Parliament about the top positions.
According to EU diplomats, Tusk will eventually draw up a list of one candidate for each of the four posts up for grabs: the presidencies of the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament, as well as the EU’s foreign policy chief. The presidency of the European Central Bank is also up for grabs but follows a separate procedure meant to guarantee the bank’s independence.
The leader’s discussion included the question of how to balance geographical distribution, how to share power between the big and small countries, demography, political party affiliation and gender balance.
Although “in the real world, perfect balance will be difficult” to achieve, Tusk spelled out gender balance as a defining factor in the selection.
“Gender balance is not only my aspiration,” he said, adding that “there was also a very visible majority around the table” to support more women in the EU’s top positions.
Tusk specified that out of the four posts, EU leaders should aim for “at least two women, if it’s possible”.
This would increase the chances of liberal candidate Margrethe Vestager and some of the other names circulated, including IMF managing director Christine Lagarde and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva, herself a former Commissioner.
Other EU diplomats and officials also insisted that gender balance will be chief among the considerations when drawing up the list of names. One diplomat said they are convinced “it will be a ‘she’ this time”, referring to the Commission post.
Before dinner, member states picked their formal negotiators to lobby for candidates, based on their political affiliation.
The European People’s Party chose Croatia’s and Latvia’s prime ministers, Andrej Plenković and Krišjānis Kariņš, to do the talking, while their Dutch and Belgian counterparts, Mark Rutte and Charles Michel, will speak for the Liberals.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Portugal’s António Costa are in charge for the Social Democrats. It means that no women will be involved in that part of the negotiating.
The informal summit, two days after the EU elections, took place against the backdrop of the dispute on whether only lead candidates of the political parties have the legitimacy to automatically become Commission president.
Tusk recalled that the leaders already killed the automaticity of the Spitzenkandidaten process in February 2018.
“It was clear from the beginning that treaty obligations are more important than political ideas and inventions,” Tusk told reporters in Brussels.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who emerged as possible kingmaker out of the EU polls, is the biggest opponent of the process.
“The Parliament, according to the treaties, is not the one to propose and nominate,” Macron said in relation to the Parliament group leaders statement, which defended the Spitzenkandidat system. “That’s a Council competence,” he insisted.
Macron explained that the nominations will take into account the political representation of the different forces. Some leaders, however, were more cautious about rejecting the system that elevated Jean-Claude Juncker to the Commission post in 2014.
“I think the Spitzenkandidaten process has a future, you cannot curb that back. It could work maybe even with a transnational dimension,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.
“We stand by our Spitzenkandidat, others stand with theirs, but we also talked about profiles today – about administrative experience, national or in the Commission,” she said, citing former Parliament chief Martin Schulz as an example.
Referring to the divide among leaders regarding the process, Tusk in his after-dinner comments made assurances that the Council is not looking for an inter-institutional conflict with the Parliament and that today’s discussion was the “best guarantee” against that.
“We want to have the best possible relationship with the European Parliament,” he said, adding that currently being a Spitzenkandidat is “not a disqualification.”
Earlier, after addressing EU leaders on the matter, Parliament President Antonio Tajani yet again defended the process, saying the EU assembly “will give further indications to the Council before the next meeting”.
“We are not defending a person but the principle,” he said and added, “not honouring the Spitzenkandidaten process would be to disrespect citizens”. EU leaders emphasised throughout the summit that the high turnout made the decision-making even more important.
Despite the process to pick the top candidates, EU leaders highlighted that the agenda for the next five years was the most important thing to agree on.
“In politics what is important is first content, then people,” Mark Rutte told reporters before the summit.
“We did not come here today to elect Mr or Mrs Europe,” said Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel. “The people of Germany don’t care if the next president will be called Weber, Vestager or Timmermans, but what this person wants to do,” he added.
“This nomination should take place on the basis of a programme,” Macron concluded after the meeting, citing climate action, more social cohesion, better protected Europe and the reform of the Eurozone.
[Edited by Sam Morgan and Frédéric Simon]