EU leaders seek to break top jobs stalemate

Brussels (AFP) –


Deadlocked EU leaders meet for a rare weekend summit Sunday seeking to fill senior European positions and settle a battle that has split key allies France and Germany.

The emergency gathering of the EU's 28 heads of state and government comes 48-hours before Tuesday's session of the new European Parliament that is seen as the deadline to fill the slate of key bloc jobs.

The European Union's two biggest powers have clashed bitterly behind the scenes over filling the roles, with Berlin furious at Paris for refusing to back Manfred Weber, a little known German MEP, as president of the European Commission.

The EU also requires new presidents for the European Council, the European Central Bank and the European Parliament, as well as a new foreign policy chief.

A marathon summit on June 20 came up empty on the issue, with leaders failing even to draw up a short list.

Handing out top jobs is a delicate exercise, with the line-up needing to strike a fragile balance between east and west, the political right and left, as well as men and women.

National pride can mar the process, with German officials angry at French President Emmanuel Macron for dismissing Weber as too low on gravitas for a top job.

The spat has made the process especially complicated, with Germany reported to be blocking Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier or any other French candidate in retaliation.

The thorny issue even made it to the G20 summit in Japan where EU Council President Donald Tusk conferred with Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders and made "12 or 13 phone calls" to other EU players.

"Don't expect white smoke here in Osaka," Tusk said, referring to the process used in selecting a new pope that EU procedure is sometimes disparagingly compared to.

-'Totally possible' -

At the heart of the feud is something called the "Spitzenkandidat" or lead candidate principle under which the top-performing party in European elections gets first dibs for top jobs.

Weber was the candidate for Merkel's centre-right European People's Party (EPP) that came out on top in last month's vote, though with a historically low share of the vote.

Other lead candidates are Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans and the liberal Danish EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who was long seen as a possible compromise pick for the French and Germans.

But Macron insists the "lead candidate" process for assigning the posts is unworkable and that the 28 national leaders must alone decide.

This leaves the possible list of candidates frustratingly uncertain and the EU rumour mill in overdrive, with names such as World Bank number 2 Kristalina Georgieva or Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic seen as possible contenders.

Whichever name the leaders elect, any candidates to top the commission or lead EU foreign policy will have to be voted on by the European Parliament.

In Osaka, a French presidency source said the night in Brussels could be long.

"Our wish is to finish it up on Sunday evening or Monday morning. That seems totally possible to us," the source said.