BRUSSELS, Belgium – Half a dozen European leaders gather behind closed doors Friday, June 7, to haggle over Brussels' top jobs, as rival camps in the new EU parliament try to cobble together a centrist majority.
Last month's continent-wide election saw pro-EU parties of the center-right and center-left hold the line against a populist surge, but it left their own ranks more divided than before.
The conservative EPP group remains the biggest single voting bloc in Strasbourg, but it will need the backing of the socialist S&D, the liberal ALDE and perhaps the Greens if it is to form a working majority.
At stake is the most powerful post in Brussels – the successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.
The EPP candidate is Bavarian MEP Manfred Weber, who has the backing of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel but has no executive experience and is opposed by the liberals and France's President Emmanuel Macron.
To win the office, a candidate must first be nominated by a qualified majority of the European Council – that is 21 national leaders from states representing between them 65% of the EU's some 500 million people.
Then he or she must be approved by a majority of the European Parliament, or 376 of the 751 MEPs.
European Council president Donald Tusk is coordinating the leaders' search for a nominee before their next summit on June 20 and 21, but early signs suggest the negotiations will be long and arduous.
To nudge the process forward, 6 prime ministers will meet on Friday in Brussels.
Belgium's Charles Michel and the Netherlands' Mark Rutte will represent the liberal ALDE faction, while the Socialists and Democrats will be championed by Spain's Pedro Sanchez and Portugal's Antonio Costa.
The center-right EPP has Croat Andrej Plenkovic and Latvia's Krisjanis Karins.
The media will be excluded from the dinner and no decision is expected, not least because Macron and Merkel are holding the process at arm's length.
"The socialists will say they want (Commission vice-president) Frans Timmermans, the EPP will say they support Manfred Weber," sighed one European official, predicting stalemate.
A Brussels diplomat added: "There will be more nights like tonight. There may be a first process of elimination, but I'm not expecting anything."
Meanwhile, the parliamentary groups are in talks about a draft governing program, over who gets to run key parliamentary committees and the top jobs bazaar.
Working groups will meet from June 12 on 5 themes: climate, the economy and social affairs, digitalization and consumer protection, the rule of law and migration, and Europe's role in defense and foreign policy.
Back room haggling
The aim is to agree a program by June 17 that the EPP, S&D, ALDE and Green groups can get behind – presenting a fait accompli before the powerful national leaders hold their European Council summit.
It is an uphill task, overshadowed both by genuine policy differences and by haggling over the jobs of Commission and Council presidents, foreign policy chief, parliamentary speaker and director of the European Central Bank.
"It won't be easy, the Greens are very strict on certain subjects," an EPP source said.
Green group co-chair Philippe Lamberts confirmed this. "We will weigh up in the coming weeks which of the promises the other groups made are be translated into fact," he told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
If the mainstream groups coalesce around a program, they should have a comfortable majority. An EPP-led group might even be able to operate as a threesome, but the others can not do without the conservatives' 179 seats.
The EPP stands behind Weber, insisting the Commission presidency is their's by right, while the left clings to that hope that Holland's Timmermans might squeak through.
"We're the biggest group in parliament, we have a majority on the Council. We want the Commission. For all the other jobs, we're ready to negotiate," the EPP source said.
"The EPP will vote for no other candidate. The EPP will vote against any other candidate."
The other camps are unimpressed by the EPP's champion but, as one party official told AFP: "They are indispensable if we're to form a majority and it's hard to see how we stop them getting the Commission."
The right's intransigence looks likely to doom the June summit to failure and to prolong the hunt for a president through the summer.
Macron and several more leaders are against both Weber – dismissed by many in Brussels as a lightweight – and paying much attention to parliamentary arithmetic.
Among the 28 heads of government around the summit table, 8 hail from EPP-affiliated parties, even if one of them, Hungary's authoritarian premier Viktor Orban, has said he opposes Weber.
Until last week, the social democrats were at a disadvantage, but national election wins in Finland and Denmark brought them up to 7 leaders and reduced the liberals to 7. – Rappler.com