17th Oct 2019


EU top jobs, Italy, and Western Balkans This WEEK

  • The race to succeed European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (r) continues (Photo: European Commission)

Talks on European Parliament (EP) groups and top jobs in the wake of the EU election last month continue this week.

Finance ministers will discuss whether to fine Italy for overspending on EU limits.

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  • Italy's government has promised to spend extra money on welfare despite EU fiscal limits (Photo:

Western Balkans enlargement, Brexit, Russian gas supplies, and God will also keep EU commissioners busy.

The outgoing head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is joining other centre-right politicians in San Sebastian, Spain, on Wednesday (12 June) and Thursday to discuss EP tactics and to promote the bloc's candidate, German MEP Manfred Weber, to take over the commission top post.

Weber should get it "taking into account [our] victory in the last European elections," the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) said in a press release on the San Sebastian event, after it came first in the May election, despite losing seats compared to five years ago.

But behind the scenes in Brussels and in national capitals, the centre-left Socialist & Democrat (S&D) and liberal Alde groups are also trying to entice rogue MEPs into their new formations and pushing their candidates for Juncker's job.

The S&D's man, Dutch EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, is holding talks with the Dutch central bank on the "future of Europe" on Thursday.

Alde's female candidate, Danish EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager, is also showboating at a political festival, called Folkemodet, on the Danish island of Bornholm the same day.


Turning to the economy, EU finance ministers in Brussels on Thursday and Friday will discuss a recent commission report saying that Italy ought to be disciplined for overspending on welfare.

The procedure could end in a €3.5bn fine if Rome's coalition government does not try to reign in its debt and deficit by 2020.

The eurozone's 19 finance ministers will also look at whether Cyprus and Greece are still making cutbacks in line with old EU bailout promises.

Europe's sovereign debt crisis ended in August 2018 when Greece exited its third and last rescue programme.

A crisis in Italy, the EU's fourth largest economy, which has one of world's greatest debt-to-GDP ratios, would dwarf Europe's previous problems.

But there will be no decision on Italy's fine until months from now, with Friday's finance talks also devoting time to banking union, financial services taxation, and climate change.

On the enlargement front, Juncker is to meet Albanian prime minister Edi Rama in Brussels on Tuesday and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini is to speak with North Macedonia's president Stevo Pendarovski on Wednesday.

The commission, last week, said the EU ought to start membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia.

It gave the green light after North Macedonia changed its name in a historic deal with Greece and Skopje's pro-EU government could lose credibility if member states say No at a General Affairs Council later on 18 June.

Germany has also given the green light, but France and The Netherlands have voiced opposition, creating uncertainty on the Western Balkans' future amid Russian competition for influence in the region.


The Brexit process is on hold in the UK as the ruling Conservative party prepares to choose a new leader.

But that does not mean events stand still, with Scottish independence on the agenda when Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, meets Juncker in Brussels on Tuesday.

People voted in droves for her Scottish Nationalist Party in the EP elections in May.

That prompted the pro-EU party to launch a nationwide pro-independence campaign to break away from Britain in order to stay in Europe, but the idea has been dogged by questions on whether the EU would take in Scotland as a new member.

For his part, Maros Sefcovic, the EU energy commissioner, will travel to Moscow on Thursday to discuss Russia's future gas supply to the EU via Ukraine.

The talks come as Russia and Germany prepare to make Ukraine's transit infrastructure obsolete by building a new pipeline, called Nord Stream 2, in the Baltic Sea this year.

Nord Stream 2 would gouge money from the EU and Nato-aspirant country and could embolden Russian military aggression in east Ukraine, but Berlin and Moscow have dodged previous commission efforts to bring them to heel.

God and microbes

In other business, EU health ministers will discuss how to combat the growth of antimicrobial resistance on Thursday and Friday.

The problem arises from meat producers who treat animals with antibiotics so they can farm them on a mass scale without infection.

Social affairs ministers will also take stock of implementation of EU anti-discrimination laws, amid efforts to curb religious bigotry and homophobia in the workplace and further afield.

At the same time, Mogherini, the foreign affairs chief, will meet cardinal Pietro Parolin and archbishop Paul Gallagher, two senior Vatican diplomats, in Brussels on Friday, in an unrelated but ironic event, given the Roman Catholic church's conservative mores.

And Juncker's commission will start the week by taking a day off on Monday because of Pentecost, a Christian holiday.

EU six hold informal dinner on top jobs

Six EU leaders representing the three most-successful political blocs in the EU elections last month are meeting in Brussels on Friday to start talks on Europe's top jobs.

Commissioner hearings start This WEEK

MEPs will grill the commissioner-designates for the next two weeks, while the fate of the Romanian and Hungarian candidates remain uncertain. And the Brexit chaos continues with the Conservative party conference.

Europe goes to New York This WEEK

Iran and climate change likely to dominate as French president Emmanuel Macron speaks for Europe at the UN general assembly in New York this week.


Not That Ambassador

Gordon Sondland, Donald Trump's ambassador to the EU, is due to appear before the House impeachment inquiry in Washington on Thursday. His predecessor as ambassador, Anthony Gardner, talks about the role, and his predecessor, on our EU Scream podcast.

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