BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A deal hatched among several key European leaders to award a former Dutch foreign minister the post of EU chief executive broke down at an emergency summit on Sunday after eastern European and centre-right European leaders rejected the plan.
Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans had appeared the favourite to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission after the leaders of Germany, France and Spain agreed to back him while in Japan last week.
But they ran into unexpectedly tough opposition on Sunday from Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia. The summit dinner began three hours late after bilateral meetings to find a solution dragged on.
The impasse underlined the broader decision-making problem facing the EU’s 28 governments, who hail from a range of political groups, and who have struggled to respond to a series of crises in recent years from migration to the economy.
The summit is a third attempt to fill five top posts running the European Union for the next five years, forging policy for 500 million Europeans from November.
EU leaders were also meant to choose the next president of the European Central Bank (ECB), but that decision seems likely to be postponed for lack of consensus.
“There’s been a centre-right revolt against Timmermans. They stand by their choice,” said one senior EU official at the summit.
The European People’s Party (EPP) says it won the most seats in May’s European election and thus under the bloc’s lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat process, deserves the Commission president post. Its pick is Manfred Weber, a German EU lawmaker.
“The vast majority of EPP prime ministers don’t believe that we should give up the presidency quite so easily, without a fight,” Ireland’s centre-right Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters.
That was despite a decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads the EPP bloc but has seen her political powers weaken, to acquiesce to French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron, a centrist, has argued that the centre-right share power after 15 years of dominating the Commission, even though the EPP won the biggest share of seats in the May European Parliament elections and remains the biggest party.
Liberals and Socialists led by Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez say they are pushing back at what they see as increasing centre-right German domination in Brussels and want to focus less on financial austerity and more on issues such as climate change and a higher minimum wage.
But Eastern European leaders at the summit said they were opposed to Timmermans, who in his current role as vice president of the Commission has repeatedly accused Poland and Hungary of violating civil rights.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote to EU conservative leaders before the summit to underline his opposition. Poland and Croatia have also expressed concerns.
“I’m afraid that this person is not really the right one to unite Europe,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis told reporters.
To be appointed, the next Commission president needs the support of at least 72% of the 28 member states, who must represent at least 65% of the EU population.
According to voting projections, Timmermans could be blocked by Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary if Italy’s eurosceptic government, which has spoken out against Timmermans, and Britain, which is leaving the EU, abstained.
Antti Rinne, Finland’s first left-leaning prime minister in 20 years, told Reuters he backed Timmermans as Commission chief.
Macron said Timmermans was one of the candidates capable of doing the job, along with Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager, currently competition commissioner, and Frenchman Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
Barnier, a member of the EPP, could yet become the candidate acceptable to all governments, one diplomat said.
Earlier on Sunday, current European Council president Donald Tusk proposed giving the Commission post to the Socialist and Democrats political bloc, for which Timmermans was the lead candidate in May’s European Parliament elections.
The president of the EU Commission should be chosen before Wednesday, when the parliament elects its president, but some diplomats said there was talk of another EU summit on July 15.
The other main jobs up for grabs are the presidency of the European Council - grouping the EU governments - the EU’s foreign policy chief and the governor of the ECB.
Leaders are seeking a balance of men and women at the top, and also a balance between eastern and western member states.
Female candidates include Vestager; Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian head of the World Bank for foreign affairs chief; and Christine Lagarde as ECB president, sources said.
Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Andreas Rinke, Richard Lough, Alexandra Regida and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Daniel Wallis