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Friday 20 September 2019

Leaders hoping for third time lucky as they fight over who gets to steer EU

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John Downing

John Downing

Some people of a certain age might remember a rueful line from the old song about an ageing roué which lamented when "it takes you all night to do what you used to do all night".

Well, scotch all references to ageing roués. Let's just simply note that EU leaders rarely spend an all-night negotiating session on something they really cannot do. But yesterday was an exception, as they ended 18 hours of talks without a decision on who should hold the top four jobs leading the European Union for the coming years.

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Today at 11am they will try for a third time to find a compromise. Their first attempt, on June 20 and 21, never fired at all as the leaders' summit agenda had other big items.

Amid Brexit and other doubts about mainstream politics generally, the 28 EU leaders are now under serious pressure to end this bickering and look serious about making things work. They have to pick replacements for EU Commission boss Jean-Claude Juncker; European Council president Donald Tusk; the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi; and the foreign affairs representative, Federica Mogherini.

The key to unlocking things appears to be overcoming opposition to a Franco-German compromise on who will become the new chief of the European Commission. They did not help their image as they left the EU summit centre in Brussels with some scathing comments from French President Emmanuel Macron.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to be more positive, saying she hoped compromise will be feasible. The compromise Ms Merkel and Mr Macron forged on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan on Saturday called for Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans to head the Commission, rather than conservative rival - and Merkel protégé - Manfred Weber.

As compensation, Mr Weber would be backed as president of the European Parliament, where he leads the EPP, to which Fine Gael is allied. In return, a candidate from the Liberals - to which Fianna Fáil is allied - would succeed Donald Tusk as EU Council president.

The problem really was that Ms Merkel's fellow EPP leaders, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, felt she was giving up the top job too easily. They may have to get over themselves today.

The EPP is still the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, but no longer the dominant force it was before the elections in late May. The Liberal group, which includes Mr Macron's supporters, is increasingly assertive over the top jobs, as are the Greens.

Under the share-out, the EPP's Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian who heads the World Bank, would become EU Council president and a Liberal would be diplomatic chief - either Belgian premier Charles Michel or the Dane Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner.

Irish Independent

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