As the European Council convenes Thursday to try to select a new slate of EU leaders, one thing is clear: Nobody has the upper hand.
POLITICO reports that while in years past, the center-right European People’s Party was strong enough in the Council and the European Parliament to muscle in many of its candidates. however this time around, the political divisions are stark. Power in the Council is split roughly into quarters — between the EPP, Socialists, Liberals and none of the above.
What makes the political math so ugly is that while no single political force can dominate the discussion, there’s no shortage of veto points. Both the EPP and the new alliance between the Liberals and French President Emmanuel Macron control enough votes in the Council to block its most important decision: the appointment of a new European Commission president.
In theory, even the countries whose representatives in the Council don’t belong to any of the major political families — Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland — could wield a veto, in the unlikely case that they were willing to work together.
To send a nomination to the European Parliament for approval requires a “reinforced qualified majority” in the Council — meaning the consent of at least 21 of 28 EU countries, comprising 65 percent or more of the bloc’s population.
Things are no less unsettled in Parliament. The institution’s leaders have insisted that the Commission president be a Spitzenkandidat — or one of the “lead candidates” put forward for the European Parliament election by the major political groups. But they haven’t been able to agree on which one — German MEP Manfred Weber for the conservatives; Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans for the Socialists; and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager for the Liberals.
That leaves the Council in a strong position to eliminate all three at Thursday’s summit, effectively setting the search back to square one.
The result is a deeply unsettled, potentially volatile selection process that could drag on through the summer or beyond, even as European Council President Donald Tusk said he is still hoping to get a deal by the end of this month.
In his formal invitation letter to Thursday’s summit, Tusk could only restate his hope for quick agreement, while noting that his own consultations, which included phone calls on Tuesday with 14 of the 28 leaders, highlighted continuing divisions.
“These consultations have shown that there are different views, different interests, but also a common will to finalize this process before the first session of the European Parliament,” Tusk wrote to national leaders. “To this end, I will continue to consult you one by one up until the summit starts. I remain cautiously optimistic, as those I have spoken to have expressed determination to decide swiftly.”
“I hope we can make it on Thursday,” he added.
Many EU officials and diplomats think a deal Thursday is unlikely, and discussions will have to continue, including at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan next week, where Tusk, Juncker, Merkel, Macron, May, and Conte will be in attendance, along with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. Rutte is one of the negotiating coordinators for the Liberals, while Sánchez is a coordinator for the Socialists.
Tusk’s main challenge in the process so far has been to identify qualified candidates willing to take on the EU jobs — and to get them to admit their interest openly. Council officials have long complained that one of the main flaws in the Spitzenkandidat process is that sitting prime ministers and presidents are unwilling to publicly declare their interest for fear of criticism at home, even though they are the most qualified and obvious candidates for EU posts.