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29th Feb 2024

Key states push Timmermans for commission president

  • Commission president Juncker, Italy's premier Conte, EU council president Tusk and German chancellor Merkel at the G20 summit: proposal in the making (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Commission vice-president and Dutch socialist lead candidate Frans Timmermans emerged over the weekend as the main contender for the EU commission presidency, as EU leaders gathered for a summit in Brussels on Sunday evening (30 June) to choose the bloc's new leadership.

However, Timmermans is facing considerable opposition from EU leaders belonging to the largest European political alliance, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) plus some central European countries.

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  • Dutch commissioner and vice president of EU Commissioner, Frans Timmermans - will he get his dream job on Sunday night? (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU Council chief Donald Tusk informed the European parliament's group leaders on Sunday that he would "test" Timmermans' name with the 28 EU leaders.

At the marathon meeting, which many were predicting would go late into the night, leaders will try to agree on key top jobs, including the next presidents of the EU commission and EU council and the EU's foreign affairs chief.

Tusk told key lawmakers that four countries, namely Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands proposed handing the commission presidency to Timmermans, and give Tusk's own current EU council job to a liberal, while the parliament presidency would be handed to Manfred Weber, who ran as the EPP's lead candidate for the commission.

The proposal was negotiated over the weekend in Osaka, Japan where key EU leaders participated in the G20 summit, and inspired by Merkel - whose Social Democratic coalition partners are tanking in the polls in Germany.

The EPP emerged bruised but still the largest party after the European elections last May, while the Socialists & Democrats came in second.

Coalition talks are ongoing in the parliament between the two, along with the liberals and the greens, but they have been unable to come up with a candidate for the commission job.

Tusk argued to the parliamentary group leaders that the leaders of Germany, France and Spain come from the three largest European political party families, which puts considerable "weight behind it", according to a source.

However, Timmermans is fiercely opposed the Visegrad Four, an alliance of central European countries, and particularly Poland and Hungary - which clashed with Timmermans repeatedly after he criticised them heavily for their breaches on rule of law, and backsliding on democratic freedoms in the last two years.

Support for Timmermans is also "not a done deal" within the EPP, which ultimately won the election and adamantly claims its right to the EU commission top position under the 'Spitzenkandidat' process over the past month.

Arriving at the summit, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said that there was "a lot of opposition to the proposal that was made in Osaka from the EPP's point of view".

"The vast majority of prime ministers don't believe we should give up the commission presidency without a fight," he told reporters.

A source said EPP president Joseph Daul gave his blessing to the proposal, and Weber himself was also involved in the talks. However, the EPP group in the parliament, which is headed by Weber, is not fully behind the Merkel-inspired plan.

The parliament will need to vote on the commission president nominated by the EU leaders.

Visegrad 4 resistance

The fiercest resistance to Timmermans' nomination on Sunday night by EU leaders came from the Visegrad countries (V4) of the Czech Republic, Slovakia Hungary and Poland. They argued Timmermans will divide and not unite Europe.

Arriving at the EU summit, Czech prime minister Andrej Babis said, "we need to find someone that unites us, not separate us", adding that "I believe that Frans Timmermans would not be the ideal person in our objective to agree. We are flexible, we must negotiate".

"Timmermans is not the right one to unite Europe. In the past we had the feeling he has not been too positive to our region, we need some geographical balance and I am also asking, where are the women?," he said referring to the fact that previously Tusk pledged to put two women in EU top jobs for gender balance.

The commission presidency nomination is decided by qualified majority in the European Council, which thus requires the support of 21 member states.

The Visegrad Four do not form a "blocking minority", but traditionally EU leaders have been keen to reach the widest possible compromise and not to upset any EU region.

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban wrote a letter to Daul calling the possibility of Timmermans' nomination a "historic mistake". Tusk held a meeting with Orban, among other leaders, ahead of Sunday's EU summit.

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