By Philip Blenkinsop, Jean-Baptiste Vey and Andreas Rinke
BRUSSELS/PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) – European Council President Donald Tusk put pressure on EU leaders on Wednesday to swiftly agree on who should hold the bloc’s top jobs but a tug-of-war between Germany and France was likely to prevent a deal at a summit on Thursday.
The bloc’s 28 national leaders meet in Brussels to haggle over who to put in the five prominent positions that would help the EU navigate through a raft of internal and external challenges in the coming years.
The murky recruitment process seeks to balance out party politics and the different priorities of the EU’s many regions, as well as the candidate’s own profiles.
“There are different views, different interests, but also a common will to finalise this process before the first session of the European Parliament,” Tusk said in an invitation letter to the 28 national leaders. “I remain cautiously optimistic … I hope we can make it on Thursday.”
But multiple diplomats and officials told Reuters it may be too soon for a deal at the summit, which will be chaired by Tusk. They pointed to the rift between Berlin and Paris over a German candidate Manfred Weber’s bid to take over at the helm of the bloc’s executive Commission later this year.
The body has powers from trade to competition to climate — all key areas as the EU struggles with weak economies and a wave of eurosceptic sentiment, as well as facing challenges from the United States to Russia to China.
“Nothing will get done without a Franco-German deal,” said an aide to French President Emmanuel Macron, who firmly opposes Weber’s bid to run the Commission. “We need to be able to cross out the names of those who don’t produce … consensus.”
France, backed by Spain’s socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and others, is seeking to mount an effective veto against the centre-right Weber and have his candidacy ruled out at this summit, diplomats and officials told Reuters.
Weber’s critics see his lack of experience leading a government as an issue and highlight his lack of charisma needed to unify a bloc facing strains over issues such as whether to be more closely integrated, how to tackle migration and Brexit.
But they have also pointed out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot drop Weber – who is a deputy head of her Bavarian sister party CSU – just yet.
“It seems too soon, all the different elements of the puzzle are not yet falling into the right please,” a senior EU diplomat said in Brussels of chances for a deal on Thursday.
A German government official said Berlin was striving for an agreement on the EU top jobs by July 2 when the new European assembly convenes for the first time following a continent-wide election last month. The chamber should then elect its new president, or presidents, for 2019-24.
That job is part of a package of the EU’s most senior leadership positions that come vacant soon.
They include replacements for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the bloc’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini, the head of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt Mario Draghi, and Tusk himself.
Should a deal prove elusive this week, Brussels sources said another leaders’ summit could take place on June 30 or July 1.
Through the process, the EU is also seeking to recruit more women into its male-dominated leadership, with expectation that senior Commission roles would go to candidates such as Spain’s Economy Minister Nadia Calvino.
Beyond a firm majority – or, preferably, unanimity – among the national leaders, any candidate to run the next European Commission must also be approved by the new European Parliament.
Political groups in the parliament are still discussing a coalition agreement and a pro-EU majority is in the works between the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the socialists, the liberals and the greens.
The EPP, the parliament’s largest multi-country faction, has so far stuck with Weber.
The socialists back Dutchman Frans Timmermans, a deputy head at the Commission, but he would be unpalatable to eastern EU states such as Hungary and Poland for his role in the bloc’s rule of law probes against their nationalist governments.
Brussels sources said Merkel’s condition for eventually dropping Weber could be that no other candidate proposed by the European Parliament or no other French person gets to lead the Commission either. That would rule out the bloc’s Brexit negotiator and centre-right Frenchman Michel Barnier, who has long run an unofficial campaign.
Other names in the game include Belgium’s liberal caretaker prime minister, Charles Michel, Bulgaria’s World Bank head Kristalina Georgieva or Lithuania’s outgoing President Dalia Grybauskaite.
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Robin Emmott, Peter Maushagen, Jan Strupczewski and Sabine Siebold in Brussels, Michel Rose in Paris, Belen Carreno in Madrid, Giselda Vagnoni in Rome, Gederts Gelzis in Riga, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)