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 met to begin bargaining over candidates for the bloc’s top jobs in the next five years.
An EU-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 agreeing a coherent agenda for the bloc more tricky.
“We won’t choose Mr. or Ms. Europe today, but just draw a balance after the European election,” Luxembourg’s liberal prime minister, Xavier Bettel, said ahead of the meeting of 28 national leaders in Brussels.
Held once every five years, the EU election means the heads of major EU institutions will now be replaced.
Merkel said on arrival at the gathering that she backed centre-right German lawmaker Manfred Weber to be the next head of the EU’s powerful executive, the European Commission, after Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker steps down on Oct. 31.
Macron pushed back minutes later, listing the EU competition commissioner, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the bloc’s Brexit negotiator, centre-right Frenchman Michel Barnier, and Dutch Social Democrat Frans Timmermans – but not Weber – as appropriate candidates.
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”. It was also, he said, about agreeing policy priorities for the coming years, including climate change, economy and migration.
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, 50 short of the majority needed to determine by themselves who should head the Commission, as they had in years past.
Other big roles up for grabs later this year include the head of the European Parliament and the European Central Bank, the bloc’s foreign policy chief and the head of the European Council who represents leaders of the 28 EU member states and helps broker compromises among them.
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.