Divisions on show as EU leaders try to end top jobs impasse

Brussels (AFP) –


EU leaders clashed Tuesday as they arrived for a third straight day of talks aimed at filling the bloc's top jobs on Tuesday, with deep divisions threatening hopes of a swift decision.

A marathon 18-hour summit session broke up in acrimony on Monday, with no agreement on a French-German compromise on who will become the new chief of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis slammed the proposed compromise candidate Frans Timmermans as "absolutely unacceptable" to a group of Eastern European countries, setting the stage for more tough wrangling behind closed doors.

Timmermans has enraged the so-called "Visegrad 4" group of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech republic with his softer approach to migration as commission vice-president over the last five years.

"He has always pushed a migration policy which is unacceptable for us, so this man is absolutely unacceptable and I can't see why the prime ministers of France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany weren't able to understand," Babis said as he arrived for talks.

But Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stood firm behind Timmermans -- they are both from the socialist political grouping -- suggesting French President Emmanuel Macron's hopes of agreement in "a few hours" on Tuesday could be thwarted.

In a sign of the tensions gripping the summit, the resumption of the formal talks on Tuesday was delayed from 11am (0900 GMT) to 1pm.

- 'New creativity' -

An EU diplomat said the Timmermans proposal had foundered Monday in the face of opposition from the Visegrad 4 plus Italy, where the populist government shares some of the Eastern Europeans' anger at Brussels over migration.

Sanchez, who held pre-summit talks with Macron and the Portuguese PM on Tuesday, took aim at those rejecting Timmermans who has defended EU values on migration and rule of law.

"You cannot reject a person because he has defended the treaties and the principles and the European values we stand for," Sanchez said.

For a candidate to get the nod, they need the backing of 21 of the 28 EU leaders, representing 65 percent of the bloc's population.

The 24-hour break in negotiations was filled with a blizzard of phone calls and text messages, according to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, as leaders sought to overcome divisions while protecting their own interests.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said leaders would approach day three with "new creativity", but warned that "everyone needs to understand that they need to move a little -- and I mean everybody".

The compromise Merkel and Macron forged on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan on Saturday called for Timmermans to head the commission, rather than his conservative rival German Manfred Weber.

Weber would instead be put forward for election as speaker of the European Parliament, where he leads the largest political bloc. A liberal candidate would succeed Donald Tusk as president of the European Council of national leaders.

But when Merkel put this to fellow centre-right leaders in the European People's Party (EPP), several rebelled and the summit was thrown into crisis as heads of government shuttled between side meetings on Sunday evening and Monday.

- Changing dynamics -

The EPP is still the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, but it is no longer the dominant force it was before elections in May.

Weber, a career MEP, is also personally unacceptable to some because of his lack of experience at the top level of government.

The liberals, which include Macron supporters, are increasingly assertive over the choice of top jobs after they and the Greens made significant gains in the polls.

Even though the Social Democrat bloc also lost ground, Timmermans emerged as a compromise candidate to head the powerful executive.

Under a new plan, Timmermans would run the commission and the EPP's Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian who is currently CEO of the World Bank, would become European Council president, several European sources told AFP.

But Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov later told his country's news media in Brussels that the liberals were blocking Georgieva for council chief.

Meanwhile, sources said a liberal could replace outgoing diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini of Italy. That could either be Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel or Danish politician Margrethe Vestager, the current competition commissioner.

Vestager, who earned a reputation for taking on US tech giants, has also been mooted to lead the commission.