February 23, 2018 / 5:26 PM / 7 months ago

EU leaders resist push for elected Commission chief, merging of posts

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders rejected on Friday a push to have the head of the EU’s executive European Commission determined by voting in elections to the European Parliament, or to merge that job with that of the chairman of EU summits.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attend a European Union leaders informal summit in Brussels, Belgium, February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Both initiatives are part of a power-struggle in Brussels between EU institutions like the Commission and Parliament which want to gain more control and European governments, known as the European Council, which does not want to cede it.

Donald Tusk, the chairman of EU summits, told a news conference that in nominating the next head of the Commission in 2019, leaders would to take into account the results of parliamentary elections as required by the EU treaty.

But they would not agree to be limited to a short-list of lead candidates prepared by the European Parliament.

“There was agreement that the European Council cannot guarantee in advance that it will propose one of the lead candidates for President of the European Commission. There is no automaticity in this process,” Tusk said.

French President Emmanuel Macron talks with Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel during a European Union leaders informal summit in Brussels, Belgium, February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

“(European Commission President) Jean-Claude (Juncker) also presented the idea of a merger of our two posts, but there was no appetite to take this forward. Above all, because it would substantially reduce the role of Member States in the EU.”

Known from the German as the Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, system, it was introduced, against leaders’ wishes, for Juncker’s appointment in 2014.

Parliament has passed a resolution that it will withhold its required confirmation from any Commission president who is not a Spitzenkandidat for a party — though that decision will be one for the next legislature elected in EU-wide voting in May 2019.

Juncker himself has thrown the Commission’s weight behind the Spitzenkandidat idea, whose supporters describe it as an enhancement of EU democracy.

But Tusk rejected that argument, saying EU laws aimed for the Commission head to get “double legitimacy” from leaders and parliament — both democratically elected. Limiting the choice for leaders by parliament would reduce democracy, not enhance it, he argued.

There was also no support among the leaders for Juncker’s idea to downsize the Commission, as all 27 members want their own commissioner.

French President Emmanuel Macron talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a European Union leaders informal summit in Brussels, Belgium, February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

“The ideas presented by Juncker of merging the top jobs and cutting down the Commission are dead. The funeral was at the summit today and it was a silent one,” one EU diplomat said, saying not a single leader spoke in favour of the proposals.

POWER PUSH

While Parliament is pushing for more power in Brussels as a way of improving the EU’s image as a democratic project, many national leaders insist that they are more representative of people’s wishes than a legislature for which less than half of the electorate bothered to vote.

Many are also concerned that limiting the choice of the influential head of the Commission to those free to campaign for the EU election restricts their ability to nominate, for example, serving heads of government to the post.

Juncker will step down in November next year. The Council should nominate his successor after the May 2019 elections in time for the new Commission president to name a line-up of commissioners to be confirmed by Parliament.

At Friday’s summit, leaders agreed with Parliament’s proposals for reducing its size and reallocating some seats after Britain leaves the Union in March 2019.

Leaders also backed an initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron to allocate some British seats to new, pan-European constituencies would not be considered for next year but should be studied for the 2024 elections. Many states are sceptical of the notion of “transnational lists”.

Macron’s proposal to launch “citizens’ consultations” on the future of the EU ahead of the 2019 election was accepted by all leaders except Hungary. Macron will launch that project on April 17 in Strasbourg.

Reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Jan Strupczewski, Gabriela baczynska and Samatha Koester; editing by John Stonestreet

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