June 30, European Council meeting participants, where the leaders of the EU member states were represented, difficulties with the final approval of the candidate for the post of President of the European Commission arose. The European Commission is the key executive authority of the European Union. Also, its competence includes some legislative functions (development of draft legislative acts). In October, the powers of the current chairman, Jean-Claude Juncker, former Prime Minister of Luxembourg and representative of the European People’s Party, expire. The President of the European Commission is appointed every five years after the election to the European Parliament. First, the list of candidates must be approved by the heads of state and government. Then candidates appear in the European Parliament with their program. The candidate approved by the majority of deputies of the European Parliament is nominated by the European Council by a qualified majority.
European leaders discussed this issue at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed to appoint another candidate as the new candidate, Frans Timmermans, the current First Vice-President of the European Commission and the leader of the Alliance of Progressive Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. Her proposal was supported by French President Emmanuel Macron. But the leaders of far from all EU member states agreed with this. After the talks stalled, President of the European Council Donald Tusk interrupted the meeting and expressed a desire to hold bilateral meetings with European leaders. However, this was a second unsuccessful attempt to appoint the President of the European Commission. A similar meeting of the European Council was held on June 20. There are good reasons why Macron and Merkel support Timmermans’s candidacy, while other European leaders do not.
The conspiracy of Berlin and Paris
Most likely, the proposal to appoint Timmermans to the post of the European Commission head is the result of behind-the-scenes agreements between Merkel and Macron. France and Germany have been setting the tone for European integration since the 1950s, and this time Merkel played along with Macron, who initially supported not only Timmermans, but also the European competition commissioner, Danish Margrethe Vestager from the European Parliament Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats, ex-French Foreign Minister, former European Commissioner for the Internal Market and EU negotiator for the Brexit Michel Barnier.
The main contender for the post of the President of the European Commission, the leader of the European People's Party Manfred Weber from the German Christian-Social Union party, did not find support in the European Parliament. Although Weber’s candidature was supported by Merkel, he was not very popular among representatives of the European political elite. Only Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister of Croatia Andrej Plenković expressed unequivocal support in his address. During his years as chairman of the European People’s Party, Weber earned a reputation as a politician who talks about the importance of supporting democracy, but in fact, doesn’t do anything about it.
Weber could not convince Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban not to reduce the independence of judges in his country and to pursue a more liberal migration policy. Weber is criticized for not opposing the appointment of Belgian Christian Democrat Martin Selmayr to the European Commission’s post in March 2018, despite the suspicion that he gave a bribe for this. The reputation of Weber, as well as other representatives of the European People's Party, is shadowed by the questionable effectiveness of Juncker's European Commission in overcoming the crisis phenomena in the European Union. During his presidency, he failed to achieve significant success in resolving the EU migration crisis. The plan of the European Commission for the resettlement of 160 thousand refugees from the territory of Italy and Greece to other European countries according to quotas has not been implemented by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The European Commission failed to resolve the debt problems of Greece and Italy, which became one of the causes of the crisis in the Eurozone.
Appointment to the post of the European Commission of other representatives of the European People's Party, such as Barnier or Merkel, whom Juncker personally recommended, would violate Spitzenkandidat principle when the main candidate from the largest parliamentary group could be appointed to the post of European Commission. Initially, Weber was the main candidate of the European People's Party. Vestager could be alternative to Weber; she is popular among liberals, but she decided to remain as European Commissioner due to her disagreement with the current course of the Danish government. The remaining main candidates, such as Czech politician Jan Fenced from the faction of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformers, leader of the Green / European Free Alliance faction, Ska Keller, Catalan separatist Oriol Junqueras from the faction of the European Free Alliance, as well as the Slovenian deputy Violeta Tomić and The Secretary-General of the Belgian Metallurgists' Union Nico Cué from the left European United Left / Left-Green of the North faction does not enjoy strong support among the centrists.
Path of least resistance
Merkel has chosen the path of least resistance and agreed to accept Timmermans’s candidacy in favor of the French partners. Macron assures that it doesn’t matter which country’s representative would chair the European Commission. Timmermans’s views are close to Macron’s and Merkel’s ones. The Dutch politician is a federalist and a supporter of strengthening European integration. He opposes Brexit and believes that the British can change their opinion about the feasibility of Brexit.
Timmermans supports the implementation of a plan for the resettlement of refugees in member countries, and also advocates the return to their states of foreigners who have not been granted political asylum in Europe. The politician is critical of the policy of US President Donald Trump with respect to the EU in terms of the demand for increased defense spending, protectionist measures in the field of trade. Timmermans believes that Europe should be a self-sufficient player in the international arena. He supports same-sex marriage, gender parity in the supranational bodies of the EU and believes that all countries should comply with the Paris Agreement on the protection of the climate. The candidate proposed to introduce a tax on carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
Nevertheless, Timmermans does not fully agree with Merkel and Macron. He is skeptical about the idea of creating a European army and does not consider this possibility in the foreseeable future. Instead, the politician proposes to intensify defense cooperation between the EU member countries in the framework of existing projects and initiatives, to counteract the information influence of Russia. Timmermans is confident that it is time to put an end to austerity policies, to increase salaries for Europeans, along with an increase in taxes for large businesses. It is not surprising why Timmermans’s candidacy was supported by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who is forced to implement austerity measures to solve the debt problem under pressure from the European Commission.
Timmermans, like Macron and Merkel, is an ardent opponent of the growing influence of Euro-skeptics in the European Union. He will act as a counterweight to the influence of far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, who won the elections to the European Parliament in France and increased its presence in the European Parliament. To some extent, Timmermans is more profitable for Merkel as president of the European Commission than Weber. The leader of the European People's Party is an associate of the head of the Christian-Social Union, Horst Seehofer. Although Seehofer is Merkel's coalition partner in the Bundestag, the relations between them are rather strained because of last year’s disagreements in the area of migration policy. Seehofer supports deporting illegal immigrants who are denied political asylum, and strengthening border security within the EU to prevent illegal migration. Weber stands for an increase in the staff for the protection of the external borders of the EU to 10 thousand people. He promised to oppose the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which is supported by the German Chancellor. Ьany European officials, including Chief Timmermans, the chairman of Juncker, oppose the construction of Nord Stream 2.
Timmermans is not very popular among Europeans. In addition to Germany and France, his candidacy is supported by Prime Minister of Finland Antti Rinne, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat. It is curious that representatives of various political forces from centrists to far-right eurosceptics speak against Timmermans’s appointment.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said that it was necessary to continue to support Weber’s candidacy, since Merkel is not the leader of the European People’s Party, making it clear that the opinion of the German Chancellor on this matter means nothing. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar believes that many people in Europe do not support Merkel’s proposal to appoint Timmermans chairman of the European Commission.
Timmermans is unpopular among representatives of the Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats. Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel and his Czech counterpart Andrej Babiš believe that the next chairman of the European Commission should be a woman. They make it clear that they sympathize with the candidature of the Danish liberal Vestager. Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe in the European Parliament, believes that it is necessary to deviate from the Spitzenkandidat principle when appointing the President of the European Commission and introduce general elections for the President of the European Council. Liberals do not support a preliminary plan for the distribution of posts in the European Union, according to which they can only claim the presidency of the European Council, while the posts of vice-president of the European Commission, president of the European Central Bank, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy will go to representatives of the European people's party.
Timmermans is extremely negative in Central and Eastern Europe. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki does not equally support Timmermans and Weber. The Hungarian government said that Timmermans is a protégé of the US-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, who will contribute to the liberalization of the EU migration policy and the development of the economic course in their own interests. Timmermans argued that legal reform in Poland limits the independence of the judiciary. He argues that in Hungary there is no longer freedom of the press, the independence of the courts has been curtailed. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó believes that Michelle Barnier would be in charge of the role of the European Commission.
It is no wonder why Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is convinced that Timmermans is unable to unite Europe. If he becomes the next chairman of the European Commission, the conflict between Brussels and Warsaw and Budapest will deepen. Timmermans can offer tougher measures of pressure on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe than his predecessor. European countries are tired of the dominance of the Franco-German tandem in the political processes of the European Union. Refusing to support Timmermans’s candidacy, European leaders make it clear to Berlin and Paris that their opinion should be considered.