The German chancellor’s attempt to end the deadlock over the selection of the EU’s top jobs has been rejected, even by Leo Varadkar, says Political Editor Daniel McConnell.
For 14 years, German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been the top dog in European politics. She has held such incredible sway not only in her grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP), to which Fine Gael belongs, but also at EU Council level, among her fellow leaders.
She is one of only a couple of leaders who gets a helicopter escort when she attends EU summits in Brussels, such is her status. All of this makes so remarkable the rebuke by her own colleagues of her attempted compromise on the selecting of the top jobs in Europe.
Among those to defy her was our own leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. So, just what happened? At last month’s scheduled EU summit, the leaders were unable to reach a consensus on who would fill the jobs of EU Commission president, European Parliament president, the high permanent representative on security, and the European Central Bank president.
An emergency summit was called for last Sunday to resolve the stand-off. But ahead of that, to breach the impasse, Merkel hatched a deal at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. She assumed it would be accepted by her EPP colleagues.
Merkel said the deal had been discussed with European Parliament president, Antonio Tajani, and the party leadership from the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU).
“Those were the results that I presented in Osaka. Apparently, we haven’t been sufficiently diligent in presenting them properly, but that is not the only reason why we haven’t been able to reach an agreement today,” she said.
Despite the EPP winning the most seats in the EU parliament, the Osaka deal sought to give the socialist candidate, Frans Timmermans, the commission presidency and Manfred Weber, the EPP candidate, the European Parliament seat.
Weber’s candidacy had been blocked by French president, Emmanuel Macron, so another option was needed. Such a need for an alternative saw Varadkar’s name being speculated upon, only for him to rule himself out to Donald Tusk, the outgoing EU Council president.
Despite Merkel’s hopes, the plan blew up in her face very quickly, when she and the other leaders landed in Brussels. But why the opposition among her own?
Those who opposed were mostly made up of Poland and other central and eastern European countries angered at Timmermans’s enforcement actions against them in his role as a European commissioner. But Varadkar was not for turning also, while insisting it was nothing personal against Timmermans. He simply felt that as the largest group, the EPP should get first call on the top jobs.
“We were all shocked that she was willing to give up the commission and council jobs for the parliament gig. It would be like the largest party in the Dáil giving up on being Taoiseach and finance,” said an Irish source.
“I guess she had German considerations to take into account. Manfred Weber is not Christian Democrats and she is in coalition with the Social Democrats. Ireland never wants to hold firm against France and Germany, but...” the Irish source added.
For his part, Varadkar, in Brussels, said: “It’s fair to say there’s a lot of opposition to the proposal that was made in Osaka, from the EPP’s point of view. The vast majority of the EPP prime ministers don’t believe that we should give up the presidency of the commission quite so easily, without a fight.”
His holding out against Merkel did not go unnoticed and drew some criticism. Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, backed Mr Timmermans, saying: “I find it extraordinary that the Taoiseach is putting EPP politics before Ireland’s interests, when he outlines his concerns about the suggested appointment of Mr Timmermans as a compromise candidate.”
Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, said:
But whatever about that criticism, it would appear that Varadkar’s gamble in opposing Merkel paid off. She was forced to abandon her plan.
“Leo, of course, knows he does not want to be seen to be opposing Merkel or Macron, but now he knows he can,” said a senior Government source.
On Tuesday, it emerged that Varadkar was openly backing Michel Barnier, the EU’s top Brexit negotiator, to become commission president, with some suggesting Varadkar was canvassing support for him.
But by then, the name of Ursula von der Leyen was gaining traction and momentum.
Von der Leyen, 60, the German defence minister and close ally to Merkel, appeared to be acceptable to all sides. She is a mother-of-seven and former physician, Tusk took to his Twitter account to announce that she was the agreed nominee of the EU 27 leaders to be commission president. He also confirmed that Christine Lagarde, the glamorous head of the IMF, was being nominated to become the new president of the ECB.
It was noted immediately that two of the top four jobs were going to be held by women for the first time. Charles Michel (43), who was being proposed to replace Tusk as president of the European Council, is the Belgian prime minister of a caretaker administration
Largely weakened by a collapse in her support at home, Merkel’s powers are clearly no longer what they once were and she departed Brussels badly damaged. Whether Macron has overtaken her as top dog remains to be seen, but she now appears to be a beaten docket.
Were she at the height of her powers and influence, it would be unthinkable for her to face opposition from a rump of smaller countries like Ireland. Varadkar took a gamble in opposing her, but the fact that he even felt able to do so reveals an awful lot about where power lies in Brussels.