German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron faced off on Tuesday over the choice of next European Commission president at a first meeting of EU leaders to hash out the political consequences of last week's elections.
The European Parliament elections, which dealt losses to the main centrist parties, have triggered a contest for the successor to Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the European Union's executive - one of several top EU vacancies.
The main political groups nominated lead candidates for the post under the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, introduced in 2014 to boost interest in the EU elections.
German EU lawmaker Manfred Weber was put forward by the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) which came first in the polls. He also has the backing of Merkel, whose Christian Democrats are the largest party in the EPP.
Merkel urged her fellow EU leaders to demonstrate their ‘capacity to act’ by agreeing quickly on Juncker's successor, ahead of Tuesday's informal EU summit in Brussels.
But Macron, who has opposed the Spitzenkandidaten system from the start, said policies must come before names.
The challenges ahead - notably on climate change, the economy and the protection of EU citizens - presuppose ‘having experiences either in one's own country or in Europe that provide credibility and know-how,’ the French president said.
His comments appeared to be a dig at Weber, who has no government experience.
Macron cited EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager and commission Vice President Frans Timmermans - both of whom are lead candidates - as well as EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier as having the skills required, while stressing that Tuesday's debate was not about names.
‘I want a debate about the project, the priorities and the criteria,’ Macron said.
Ahead of the summit, the French president held a flurry of talks with several of his EU counterparts, including Merkel and fellow members of the liberal ALDE group, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte.
Macron also met with his counterparts from the so-called Visegrad group of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. The four countries ‘don't consider the system of Spitzenkandidaten as a holy bible,’ said Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini.
Earlier Tuesday however, several top EU lawmakers stood by the Spitzenkandidaten system, insisting the new commission president should come from their ranks.
In a statement backed by the EPP, the Socialists and the Greens - but not the liberal ALDE group - they said it was important ‘that the next commission president has made her/his programme and personality known prior to the elections and engaged in a European-wide campaign.’ Under EU rules, national leaders nominate the commission president, but their choice requires majority backing in parliament.
The parliamentary leaders did not single out any preferred candidate on Tuesday.
Complex negotiations are under way, with Weber requiring a majority of at least 376 lawmakers in the 751-seat parliament. At the very least, he would need the backing of the Socialists - the second-largest party - as well as the Greens, in order to succeed.
‘The European People's Party is ready for all the necessary compromises,’ Weber said on Tuesday. ‘We are ready to talk now with everyone.’ But the Socialists are backing their own lead candidate, Timmermans. The Greens have made overtures to other parties, with co-leader Ska Keller praising Vestager of the liberal ALDE group as a rare female candidate.
Liberal prime ministers Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg and Juha Sipila of Finland also spoke out in favour of Vestager on Tuesday. However, she can count on less support in her native Denmark due to domestic politics.
The commission presidency is one of several top EU vacancies, alongside the successor to European Council President Donald Tusk, the European Central Bank chief and the next parliament president.
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