May 28, 2014 5:56 pm

EU braced for prolonged tussle over new Commission president

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Brussels is bracing itself for months of brinkmanship over the EU’s new leadership after the presumed frontrunner for the European Commission presidency saw his path to the job stymied with no alternative for the post emerging.

EU officials said there was a growing fear of a stand-off between Europe’s prime ministers, who are cooling on the candidacy of former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, and the newly elected European Parliament, which is insisting he be given the first shot at the job.

“This could still turn into an inter-institutional fight pitting the European Parliament against the council [of prime ministers],” said one senior EU official briefed on negotiations. The official added that both sides were fighting to set the precedent for how the candidate for the EU’s top job was chosen. “It’s not just the power game. It’s about the long-term implications of the power game.”

The prospect of a prolonged and messy fight over the EU’s top job is particularly unwelcome at a time when the bloc is struggling to respond to an election that saw big gains by eurosceptic parties of both left and right.

The stand-off emerged after prime ministers in the EU’s centre-right political group, the European People’s party (EPP), failed on Tuesday to give Mr Juncker clear backing for the job and instead threw the contest open to negotiation.

According to officials briefed on the discussions, Mr Juncker sought a firm endorsement at a pre-summit meeting of EPP leaders, only to face opposition from two of the prime ministers in attendance: Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

The officials said both men’s objections were procedural rather than personal: by choosing Spitzenkandidaten, or party-ticket leaders, MEPs in the Brussels-based groupings have attempted to pre-empt EU prime ministers, who are given the right to nominate the commission’s president under the union’s treaties.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, made a similar point at a post-summit news conference, warning MEPs it was dangerous to break treaty rules. “We … feel a task is incumbent upon us, namely to make a proposal, which in the end can then be accepted by the European Parliament,” Ms Merkel said. “I have not yet found anyone who tells me I don’t have this task.”

Officials said two non-EPP prime ministers – Britain’s David Cameron and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands – expressed similar reservations about Mr Juncker during the summit deliberations.

One leading member of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union said the chancellor was also hesitant towards Mr Juncker because she viewed him as an old-school europhile, a less-than-ideal pick at a time of an unprecedented anti-EU backlash. But she was also resisting dropping him entirely for fear of the parliament’s wrath, the CDU veteran said.

“Either way there are costs for Ms Merkel,” he said. “Juncker remains a possible choice.”

Although a growing number of prime ministers are resisting Mr Juncker, some fear a protracted fight without a clear alternative. According to French officials, President François Hollande does not believe a “miracle candidate” is available and could be persuaded to back Mr Juncker to avoid months of stalemate.

“What is the point of having a horrible negotiation for months if we do not have a better solution in view?” said one senior French official.

Several EU officials continue to suggest that Christine Lagarde, the French chief of the International Monetary Fund, would break the stalemate as the only viable candidate with the stature to win over all sides. But Paris has insisted Mr Hollande would not back Ms Lagarde.

“She is at the IMF which is very important for Europe,” said the French official. “If she leaves we won’t have the IMF any more. It does not work. We cannot drop the IMF.”

Additional reporting by James Fontanella-Khan in Brussels

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