Locked in strife, EU leaders adjourn talks on top jobs for next morning

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite (R) with fellow leaders during a special European Council in Brussels on 30 June 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL]

A summit of EU28 leaders was adjourned in acrimony on Monday (1 July) after almost 18 hours of talks failed to produce an agreement on how to carve out the bloc’s top jobs, due to opposition from Eastern member states and divisions within the conservative European People’s Party.

The leaders agreed to resume at 11 am on Tuesday, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted it could still be difficult to break the deadlock and find a successor for Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the next European Commission.

“If we knew what should change tomorrow, we would have continued today,” she said before the Council broke off for a 24-hour respite.

A tentative agreement whereby Socialist Frans Timmermans would get the European Commission presidency was vehemently opposed by the Visegrad Four – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – as well as Italy, although it was endorsed by Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and many other leaders.

Macron attributed the EU summit failure to “political divisions among the Conservatives” in the European People’s Party (EPP), whose leaders continued pushing for their own candidate, Manfred Weber, for the Commission helm, although it was clear he did not have the majority in neither Council nor the European Parliament.

There were also “geographical divisions” in the European Council, the French President added, referring to the opposition of the four Visegrad countries to the appointment of Timmermans, who has led a crackdown on Poland and Hungary over their declining rule of law record in the last two years.

A visibly tired Merkel told reporters that although EU28 had “discussed extensively”, it still would be “complicated” to reach an agreement on Tuesday.

“I hope that, with goodwill, it’s possible,” Merkel said. She stressed that she wanted to achieve “the highest possible consensus” and would not be satisfied with a deal that only achieves the bare minimum majority (21 out of 28 countries, representing 65% of the EU’s population).

Unlike Merkel, Macron issued a scathing assessment of the failed summit, which follows the first unsuccessful attempt to agree on the top jobs on 20-21 June.

“In the long run, I also think we must draw the consequences of this failure. Our credibility is profoundly tainted with these meetings that last for too long and lead to nothing. We give an image of Europe which is not serious,” Macron said, calling for “a simplification of our procedures”.

‘Osaka deal’ reached by Timmermans and Weber

Under the deal, Merkel agreed to give up the Commission presidency for her EPP, even though it had won the most votes in the EU elections in May. But the backlash from inside Europe’s largest political family was stronger than expected.

Though it was widely believed the deal had been agreed by the leaders of the EU’s strongest economies during last week’s G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told reporters on Monday the deal had been reached between  Timmermans and Weber, in order to save the Spitzenkadidaten procedure.

This is the first time that the jobs are being divided among three political groups – along with the traditional stalwarts, the EPP and the Socialists, the Macron-driven Renew Europe is now in the game.

Three EU jobs are up for grabs: the presidency of the European Commission and the European Council and the EU’s foreign policy chief. The presidency of the Parliament is also open but follows a separate track, as MEPs are expected to elect their new chief at the Parliament’s inaugural plenary on Wednesday (3 July).

One version of the deal, blessed by France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, assigned the Commission to Timmermans, Parliament to Weber, the Council to Liberals from Renew Europe and the High Representative to the EPP.

Although Council President Donald Tusk was told that the proposal could find consensus at the Council, the plan faced “fierce criticism,” among the EPP leaders.

After finding no room for agreement on the ‘Osaka deal’, Tusk launched another round of negotiation that lasted several hours. When the leaders reconvened on Monday morning, a wide variety of potential packages was put on the table, but none of them would reach the consensus needed for a decision.

The EU28 considered the possibility of carrying out indicative votes on packages as a whole and names for specific positions. Although the leaders were reportedly close to an agreement, EU sources said, Tusk decided to suspend the meeting.

A lot of potential packages are still on the table and Tusk will now have to consult the leaders again to see which one can actually win the final approval on Tuesday (2 July). However, EU sources admitted, as divisions remain, the need for a vote is very likely.

Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas told reporters “quite a lot of countries” wanted to see better distribution in terms of the geographical and gender balance, together with big and small countries.

“I think all the colleagues understand that Central and Eastern Europe must also have a very strong representative, but let’s see,” he said.

Ratas added that all leaders had “this kind of consensus” about finding a solution during tomorrow’s meeting. “At this hour, I am quite optimistic,” he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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