German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Saturday that she expected one of the two “lead candidates” for European Commission president to win the position, suggesting a potential deal that would install Frans Timmermans, a social democrat, in the EU’s top job.
Merkel notably did not repeat her endorsement of German MEP Manfred Weber, the lead candidate of her own European People’s Party (EPP). EU officials have said it is clear that Weber does not have the support among national leaders to win the nomination.
By strongly defending the lead candidate system, which she had previously said should not be binding on the European Council, Merkel seemed to slap back forcefully at French President Emmanuel Macron, who had declared Weber unqualified for the presidency and also that no lead candidate could get the Commission job.
“It is becoming clear that the process of lead candidates plays a more important role than was said by some at the last European Council,” Merkel said
And contrary to Macron’s assertion, Merkel said that both Weber and Timmermans, the Commission’s first vice-president, were still under consideration and would be at the core of a deal to fill the EU’s top jobs — a decision that could come as soon as Sunday night when the European Council is scheduled to hold a summit in Brussels.
“I support that a solution will be found,” Merkel said at a news conference near the end of a meeting of leaders of the world’s top 20 economies.
“I am glad that it seems to be possible that this can be done on the basis of the lead candidates,” she said. “And then we’ll see what comes out of it. In any case, the two lead candidates are part of the solution. This is very important.”
Macron’s comments, after a European Council summit last week in which he effectively disqualified all of the lead candidates, went beyond what other leaders thought they had agreed. Macron said there was no majority in the Council for Weber, Timmermans or the liberal candidate, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. Other leaders believed that while Weber lacked support, no decision had been taken on Timmermans or Vestager.
Macron’s dismissal of Vestager’s chances surprised and angered even some leaders from his own centrist-liberal political family. He followed up those remarks with a statement in Japan on Thursday, in which he warned that the EU would enter “a cycle of institutional dysfunction” if the Council failed to reach a decision on Sunday.
Merkel, who remains the EU’s most influential leader, appeared to reject that statement.
“There will be no inter-institutional conflict at this stage,” Merkel said, even as she cautioned that a deal was not guaranteed.
“You know that not all member states of the EU have heads of government who, for example, belong to a party family, which means that we cannot simply talk about party families without consulting everyone,” she said. “But we are on a path that may make it possible to achieve a result tomorrow.”
Some EU officials and diplomats suggested that such a deal could appoint Timmermans as Commission president, and allow Weber to run for European Parliament president, while a conservative would also be elected as Council president.
Other diplomats and EU political operatives said that they envisioned a package that would include former Commission vice president Kristalina Georgieva, a conservative, as high representative for foreign affairs — putting a woman from Eastern Europe in a top job. Charles Michel, the liberal, caretaker prime minister of Belgium, would become Council president.
EU leaders must also choose a new president of the European Central Bank, but that position requires special expertise and, given the bank’s independence, is generally viewed as related but apart from the other positions.
Merkel’s apparent openness to a deal that would see Timmermans become Commission president would be such a stunning and abrupt shift in EPP strategy that it immediately raised questions that she was engaged in more complex tactical maneuvering.
EPP leaders, including the party’s president, Joseph Daul, have stated repeatedly that the conservatives are interested in just one of the EU’s top jobs: Commission president. They also refused to put forward any alternative candidate, even as it became clear that Weber would not have sufficient support in the Council.
Timmermans is likely to face fierce opposition in the Council from some countries, notably Poland and Hungary, which have clashed with the Commission over allegations that they undermined rule-of-law and other democratic norms. Timmermans has been the Commission’s main enforcer in those fights.
The Timmermans option had been a matter of speculation in Brussels and other European capitals in recent days, after there were no clear conclusions from a dinner Merkel held in Berlin on Wednesday with Weber, Daul and two leaders of Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Markus Söder.
Officials said Weber was pressed at the dinner to say if he intended persist in his bid for the Commission presidency, or if he was ready to withdraw from the race and instead run for president of the Parliament.
But if Timmermans’ candidacy doesn’t get a majority in the Council on Sunday, diplomats and officials said there were other options, including putting Vestager’s name forward or seeking candidates from a list of conservatives including Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, and two Germans — Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Economy Minister Peter Altmaier.
Four Eastern European countries have already sent a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, expressing opposition to Timmermans, who is a former Dutch foreign minister.
To win the Council’s nomination, the future Commission president must get the votes of 22 EU countries representing at least 60 percent of the European population, provided all 28 EU countries participate.
One EU diplomat said unanimity was not required. “It’s possible,” the diplomat said. “Tusk was elected without the support of Poland.”
By suggesting she is open to supporting Timmermans, Merkel could portray herself as willing to compromise while positioning the EPP to win the Commission presidency with a candidate other than Weber in the likely event of a deadlock, and it could position the conservatives to form an alliance with the Socialists & Democrats and the Greens. Together those three groups could form a majority coalition in Parliament that excludes the liberals.
Merkel’s comments in Osaka pointedly excluded any reference to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, which became a partner of Macron’s En Marche movement in a new parliamentary group called Renew Europe.
Throughout the campaign, EPP officials slammed the liberals for protesting the Spitzenkandidat system by refusing to put forward a single nominee. Instead, the liberals proposed a slate of seven candidates. It was only after the election that the liberals said Vestager was their choice. And Merkel, at her news conference on Saturday, suggested that Vestager was not in fact a genuine candidate.
“I can only say that the two Spitzenkandidaten, who are, so to speak, the real Spitzenkandidaten, are under discussion and have both taken care in their own way to ensure that the lead candidate process is maintained for the future,” Merkel said.
She said that maintaining the system was important to the Parliament and to the candidates. Tusk, who is steering the effort to select the new slate of leaders, had hoped to use the G20 summit to build consensus for a package that could then be approved on Sunday back in Brussels.
“We have talked about these issues in passing here,” Merkel said, adding that preservation of the lead candidate system had emerged as a priority for leaders. That in itself is a surprise given that the lead candidate system is designed to empower Parliament, while curtailing the Council’s role — something the Council said could never be formally adopted because it would be a violation of the EU treaties.
“Parliament has made it very clear here that it wants to stand by this concept,” Merkel said. “And the Spitzenkandidaten among themselves are also very keen to find a solution.”
Macron, at his own news conference in Osaka, did not speculate on names but said he wanted the Council to choose a Commission president who was most likely to succeed in implementing an agenda set by EU leaders.
“I want this designation to take place according to a program of our priorities,” Macron said, adding that he did not want to prejudge the positions of other leaders.
“Things are moving forward,” Macron said. “This is my goal.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said at the G20: “I have always said that the most important for the government of Spain and also as so-called leader of the negotiation for the social democrat family … was to have political change at the helm of the European Commission.” He pointed out that the last social democrat to be Commission president was Jacques Delors.