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European leaders fail to agree on candidate for next Commission President

Key Points
  • Europe's most powerful political leaders have failed to agree on a suitable candidate to run the European Commission for the next five years.
  • The 28 Presidents and prime ministers chaired by former Polish premier Donald Tusk and known as the EU Council, announced that they would gather again next weekend for a further set of talks beginning Sunday, June 30.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron (R) in Berlin, Germany on April 29, 2019.
Carsten Koall | Getty Images

Europe's most powerful political leaders have failed to agree on a suitable candidate to run the European Commission for the next five years. This after an intensive set of negotiations in Brussels over the future leader of the world's largest trading block ended in stalemate

The 28 presidents and prime ministers chaired by former Polish premier Donald Tusk and known as the EU Council, announced that they would gather again next weekend for a further set of talks beginning Sunday, June 30.

"We're not quite at the point where I'd wish us to be," acknowledged German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose preferred candidate Manfred Weber had earlier failed to win public endorsement from key European figures, including her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

Weber out?

Weber is a German member of the EU's parliament and chair of a pan-continental center-right political group known as the European People's Party (EPP), which won the highest number of seats in last month's European parliamentary elections. The EPP includes Merkel's Christian Democrats among its membership, but despite such powerful support, his critics have frequently highlighted that Weber himself has no direct experience of executive government.

Traditionally the largest grouping in the European legislature would expect members of the EU Council of national leaders to formally propose that grouping's preferred candidate for president of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, before the parliamentary body can formally sign off on their selection. A qualified majority of those leaders - or 21 out of 28 - must find agreement for that to happen.

But this so-called spitzenkandidat process is not codified in European law. After the inconclusive elections ending May 26 that saw the Strasbourg- and Brussels-based parliament further fragment into a complex set of competing political groups, the continent's top power brokers seemed to acknowledge Friday morning that their ability to choose a new Commission chief was hampered by uncertainty about the requisite parliamentary sign-off.

"That is the result of the fact that it's no longer sufficient that two political families come to an agreement. We have to have at least three," Chancellor Merkel told journalists as she exited talks in the early hours of Friday.

"We suggest the person, but we definitely don't want to see a crisis with parliament, to realize that what we suggest is not being accepted."

One apparent consequence of last night's failed talks is that the other top candidates favored and proposed by Europe's next two largest parliamentary groupings may also be dropped from the contest. They include Europe's current commissioner focused on competition, Danish politician and ex-minister Margarethe Vestager, and Dutch diplomat-turned-lawmaker Frans Timmermans, a current vice-president of the Commission.

President Macron said the selection process had been "blocked" by "initial agreements" among the various political blocs, but that any previous handshake deals that may have existed around candidates for Europe's top jobs were no longer valid.

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European officials must in the coming months also decide on the next president of the European Central Bank, the bloc's next top diplomat, and the person best suited to chair future European Council meetings once Tusk steps down. A new parliamentary session begins on July 2, and the current Commission's term in office is currently scheduled to end on October 31st.

Macron told reporters as he left talks that over the coming weeks he and his counterparts "need to surface names of people who are qualified for these jobs."