‘Institutional crisis’ if EU doesn’t pick Spitzenkandidat, EPP warns

Manfred Weber (L), chairman of the European People's Party and candidate as next European Commission president, is welcomed by European Council President Donald Tusk (R) ahead to a meeting on EU top jobs in Brussels, Belgium, 13 June 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

EU heads of states risk plunging the bloc into an “institutional crisis” should they decide to abandon the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process of selecting the next President of the European Commission, a senior source at the European People’s Party (EPP) has told EURACTIV.

The centre-right EPP is the largest political group in the European Parliament and therefore has the upper hand to nominate the next President of the European Commission.

But the EPP’s lead candidate, Manfred Weber, is seen as too inexperienced by French President Emmanuel Macron who said he would not support him. The French President also insists there is no automatic connection between the Spitzenkandidaten and the Commission nomination, a decision which is formally in the hands of EU heads of states under the EU treaties.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile is backing her compatriot, who has no experience in government but is Vice-President of Bavaria’s conservative CSU, the sister party to Merkel’s CDU.

The fall-out between Merkel and Macron over the Commission top job will come into sharp focus at a two-day EU summit opening in Brussels today. And those Franco-German tensions are now being amplified by the EPP which insists EU leaders stick to the Spitzenkandidaten process.

“The election turnout has shown that it will be crucial to define a Commission mandate on the basis of parliamentary democracy, a parliamentary majority,” a senior EPP source told EURACTIV, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Any candidate for the European Commission beyond the lead candidates who showed their ambitions before the elections would be a very big gamble, a source of great uncertainty and even risk an institutional crisis,” the EPP source added.

“There is no alternative to the lead candidate process.”

In an invitation letter to EU leaders for Thursday’s summit, European Council President Donald Tusk said he was “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement could be reached this week on the EU’s top jobs.

Tusk is holding out for a deal, EU sources have said, pointing out that an agreement must be finalised “before the first session of the European Parliament” which takes place on 2 July.

This means another EU summit might have to be convened before the Parliament’s opening session in the coming ten days.

EU leaders launch hunt to fill Brussels' top jobs

European leaders descend on Brussels on Tuesday (28 May) to launch the hunt for a new generation of top EU officials in the wake of elections that shook up traditional alliances.

While Weber still lacks the support of a qualified majority of member states in the European Council, he has nonetheless started to convince those who were previously on the sidelines.

On Tuesday (18 June), the Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi came out in support of Weber, calling him the “natural candidate” for the Commission top job.

“Obviously we need to see how all others will position themselves with respect to his candidacy, but it is clear that Weber is the natural candidate with whom the states will have to confront in the European Council,” Milanesi said, speaking at the conclusion of the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg.

The Italian minister added, however, that it was “possible” that an agreement on the Commission job will not be reached this week.

Tusk has been doing the rounds over the past week, meeting EU heads of states and leaders of European Parliamentary groups in an attempt to tie up talks before the Parliament’s opening session on 2 July.

The Council President is attempting to gauge the appetite for compromise on the top jobs, which include the Presidency role in the Commission, Parliament and Council as well as the EU’s foreign affairs chief.

An EU official close to the matter said there was discernible “willingness to get on with things” and that the nominations will “concentrate the efforts of EU leaders” when they meet in Brussels today.

Now is the “right time” to agree on a package of jobs that will be dished out ahead of the beginning of the new mandate, the source added.

Sánchez and Macron open the top EU jobs talk

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Monday (27 May) and is expected to lobby for several socialist and social-democrat candidates for EU top jobs, as member states and political groups start jockeying for position.

For their part, the European Parliament is yet to reach a coalition agreement, despite talk of a pro-EU majority forming between the EPP, the liberals, the greens and the socialists.

An EU diplomat with knowledge of the French position said Macron “has not changed his mind on the Spitzenkandidaten,” saying the most important criteria for the Commission top job is the level of “competence” and “ambition” for Europe.

“You need the right people in the right places, those who are capable of doing the job,” the diplomat said, insisting that competence, not political affiliation, was Macron’s chief concern  over the Commission role.

“We will have to take note politically of what is possible and what is not possible,” the diplomat said, adding there was no urgency to come to an agreement just yet. “We are not late, there are other topics to discuss in the European Council,” the diplomat said.

Back in the Council, EU sources do not seem to share this view, and pointed to the urgency of agreeing on the EU’s various nomination processes sooner rather than later. As the G20 opens in Osaka on 28-29 June, leaders may not have time for a second gathering before Parliament’s inaugural plenary session on 2 July. The leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands are all set to attend the G20 talks, along with Donald Tusk himself.

Options are currently being left on the table for a second EU summit after the G20 talks, EURACTIV understands.

“Theoretically there are options to do something before the 1st July,” the source said. “Next week will indeed be complicated, but all options are on the table.”

[With additional reporting and editing by Frédéric Simon]

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