By Jan Strupczewski and Jean-Baptiste Vey
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron disagreed on Tuesday over who should be the next chief of the European Commission as EU leaders bargained over names for the bloc’s top jobs in the next five years.
Diplomats said Merkel was dismayed with Macron’s swift public dismissal of Berlin’s preferred candidate, a centre-right German lawmaker Manfred Weber, as the 28 leaders met behind closed doors without aides or mobile phones.
A bloc-wide election last week returned a European Parliament with a splintered centre and gains by pro-EU liberals and Greens as well as eurosceptic nationalists and the far right, making a common agenda harder.
“We won’t choose Mr. or Ms. Europe today, but just draw a balance after the European election,” said Luxembourg’s liberal prime minister, Xavier Bettel.
Held once every five years, the European Union election means the heads of major EU institutions will now be replaced.
Merkel said on arrival she wants Weber to be the next head of the European Commission, the EU’s powerful executive, after Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker steps down on Oct. 31.
But Macron pushed back, listing EU competition commissioner, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the bloc’s Brexit negotiator, centre-right Frenchman Michel Barnier, and Dutch Social Democrat Frans Timmermans as appropriate candidates.
Spain and Sweden backed Timmermans, while Ireland and Croatia spoke for Weber. Luxembourg and Slovenia supported Vestager, one of few women in the running.
Eastern leaders demanded geographical balance in awarding the prominent Brussels roles. Poland and Hungary would strongly oppose Timmermans as he led the EU’s rule of law probes against them in his current Commission vice-president role.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, also mooted as a possible contender in the obscure recruitment process, said Tuesday’s meeting was about “content rather than people” and should focus on policy priorities, including climate change and migration.
Together with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Belgium’s Charles Michel, Rutte is among several leaders who might be leaving their posts after performing poorly in the EU election. Their weakened position further complicates the debate on top jobs and strategic course.
The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group were reduced to 326 seats together in the new, 751-strong chamber in Sunday’s vote, short of the majority needed to decide on the Commission.
The executive body acts as the EU’s competition watchdog, monitors member states’ budgets and proposes policies from climate change to tech regulation.
Other big roles up for grabs later this year include the head of the European Parliament and the European Central Bank (ECB), the bloc’s foreign policy chief and the head of the European Council who represents leaders of the 28 EU states.
Both France and Germany have ambitions to have one of their nationals run the ECB after the current president, Mario Draghi, leaves at the end of October. Neither is likely to secure both the bank and the Commission, officials say.
The EU would risk an institutional logjam if talks drag on, leaving it unable to make pivotal policy decisions at a time when it faces a more assertive Russia, China’s growing economic might and an unpredictable U.S. president.
Leaders of a majority of parties in the newly elected chamber called on Tuesday on national government leaders to nominate a lawmaker to replace Juncker, though the EPP’s Weber has failed to rally the other assembly groups behind him.
Stripped of their longtime combined parliamentary majority, the EPP and S&D are looking for support from the liberal ALDE and the Greens, since the four groups together would command comfortably enough seats to approve or reject any nomination.
Among national government leaders, only seven are now with the EPP. French officials have said the liberal Macron could endorse the centre-right Barnier to succeed Juncker, but was keeping his options open.
Merkel and Macron are due to meet again in the German town of Aachen on Thursday.
Tuesday’s talks among all EU leaders included outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, but the agenda for once did not include the issue that brought her downfall: Brexit.
EU summits chairman Donald Tusk hopes to propose one name for each job to the leaders again in June, and have them approved by the new European Parliament in July. Otherwise, the whole process risks getting delayed until autumn.
Unanimity is not required though it is hard to see a candidate succeeding against the will of more than just a handful of leaders, as that would risk damaging their future cooperation and stalling the EU’s decision-making.
(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Philip Blenkinsop, Gabriela Baczynska, Alastair Macdonald, Francesco Guarascio, Robin Emmott, Daphne Psaledakis, Jean-Baptiste Vey and Michel Rose; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Cawthorne)