MEPs furious over Council’s ‘backroom horse-trade’ on EU top jobs

European Council President Donald Tusk in the European Parliament debating the results of the 20, 21 and 30 June summits and the proposed candidates for the EU top jobs. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

Lawmakers of the newly constituted European Parliament slammed EU leaders on Thursday (4 July) for their ‘backroom package deal’ on the EU’s top jobs, with a potential inter-institutional conflict looming ahead as the chamber’s decision to approve it is on a knife-edge.

“To some, the Parliament represents genuine European democracy, because of its directly elected members, while to others it is rather the European Council, because of the strong democratic legitimacy of the leaders. In fact, such disputes make little sense, as both institutions are democratic,” a defiant European Council President Donald Tusk said, addressing the parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg.

Tusk also defended the candidates put forward by leaders, including German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen for European Commission president, outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel for the European Council; IMF chief Christine Lagarde for the European Central Bank, and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell as the EU’s foreign affairs chief.

“For the first time, we achieved a perfect gender balance in the top positions. Europe is not only talking about women, but it is also choosing women,” the Council chief told MEPs, who are set to vote on the Commission candidate in mid-July.

Tusk added that he had been in close contact with the leaders of the Parliament political forces throughout the process. “I did it not only out of respect for you but above all, to make sure that the decisions are truly common,” Tusk said.

While the appointments have given solid representation for women and a balance between the Conservatives, Socialists and Liberals, Eastern Europe has been left out, along with the Greens, who were among the main winners in May’s European elections.

Tusk urged that candidates from the east and Green parties be represented in second-tier jobs yet to be filled. “I will appeal to all my partners to involve the Greens in the nominations, even though there is still no European Council leader from this party,” he said.

“Of course, there is still room for improvement as regards representatives from the East, in the overall architecture of European positions. In particular that some prime ministers from the Socialist family were making commitments as regards geographical balances in this House,” Tusk said.

He also criticised Socialist Prime Ministers Pedro Sanchez and Antonio Costa for forging a gentlemen’s agreement on the election of a Socialist candidate for the presidency of the European Parliament.

MEPs appalled by top job process

In Strasbourg, Tusk had to face EU lawmakers’ frustration over the Council ‘s decision to derail the Spitzenkandidaten system that five years ago allowed them for the first time to influence the election of the EU’s executive.

“I am not going to congratulate the Council, and with all respect President Tusk, I cannot congratulate the way how things were done, the lack of respect you have shown,” said European People’s Party vice-chairman Esteban González Pons.

According to him, EU leaders had overstepped their powers and disregarded the Parliament as “they have the right to propose a candidate, but not to ignore the candidates that have been voted for by millions of European citizens.”

“We have defended the Spitzenkandidaten process because we think the citizens have the right to determine and choose who is governing them,” said the EPP vice-chair, who backed Manfred Weber bid to lead the European Commission.

“The future of Europe can no longer be decided behind closed doors,” said González Pons, adding that “no president in the European Council would accept this to be done in their national countries”.

However, despite denouncing the EU leaders’ “horse-trade”, González Pons said the EPP was still ready to back Von der Leyen for the head of the Commission.

MEPs from the four main groups called for von der Leyen to commit to a ‘coalition programme’ in return for their support.

“At the end of the day, the Parliament simply has to execute the decisions taken by the European Council. Of course, it’s easy to criticise the heads of state and government but I wanted to say to all of you in this house that if the Parliament is emerging from this episode in a weaker position, it has only itself to blame,” Greens/EFA co-chair Philippe Lamberts warned.

S&D Group leader Iratxe Garcia Perez pointed out the European elections had sent “a clear message for a change in Europe”, arguing that Frans Timmermans should have got the Commission top job because he could have obtained a majority in the Parliament.

“Our candidate has been rejected because of his defence of the rule of law and European values,” she pointed out. “We will not support any candidate which stands opposed to change.”

Meanwhile, Renew Europe leader, Dacian Ciolos, attacked the European Council for not fulfilling their own set conditions: “We do not have a geographic balance; Eastern Europe is not represented as it used to be when you (Tusk) were elected to your post. We need a way that takes into account all the provisions in the EU treaties.”

“We cannot wait for the European Council or Commission to do something, we have to start in Parliament, that it is our responsibility,” he urged his colleagues.

Addressing the EPP and S&D, he suggested: “If you really want a democratic spirit, let’s talk about developing a cross-border transnational election list so that all candidates can be voted by all European citizens.

Ciolos said his party will propose a conference of European renewal tasked with developing proposals to democratise the EU’s processes and basic principles:

“European values, rule of law and respect for human rights are non-negotiable – in this parliamentary term, we come up with a set of principles to protect and sanction mechanism, prevention mechanism.”

“The real scandal is that these solutions are cooked in back rooms, don’t involve the Parliament and ridicule democracy in Europe,” said the interim president of the GUE/NGL, Martin Schirdewan.

Others, however, were glad to see that member states ignored the political families’ picks for the Commission chief.

“The most obvious conclusion after the European Council is that the Spitzenkandidaten mechanism is dead and gone, It is even more dead than a parrot in the Monty Python sketch,” ECR leader Ryszard Legutko said.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox and Zoran Radosavljevic]

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