OSAKA, Japan — The EU is at risk of “entering a cycle of institutional dysfunction” if leaders cannot swiftly agree on how to fill the bloc’s top jobs, French President Emmanuel Macron warned.
Speaking Thursday on a train in Japan, where he will attend the G20 summit in Osaka, Macron also said that nationality should not be a primary factor in choosing the next European Commission president — an apparent dig at German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, for rallying around German MEP Manfred Weber.
Weber, the Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” of Merkel’s conservative political family, the European People’s Party (EPP), does not have sufficient support among leaders on the European Council, which must nominate the next Commission president for approval by a majority vote in the European Parliament.
“I do not oppose such a candidate because of his nationality, nor do I push absolutely any candidate because of his nationality,” Macron said, speaking en route to the G20 summit from Tokyo, where he met Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito.
“We want a team that is consistent, has the best skills and is aligned with the strategy we have implemented,” Macron said. “I do not care if I have a Frenchman, for example, if he thought the opposite of what we put on the table. That’s not how Europe works. And all too often we found compromises on people who basically could not really implement what we wanted.”
His remarks were a clear rebuke of Germany, and also cast doubt on the presidential prospects of Michel Barnier, the Brexit negotiator and veteran French statesman, who is seen as a potential alternative to Weber and the other “lead candidates.”
In recent days, Merkel and other senior German political figures, as well as leading officials in the EPP, have reiterated their support for Weber and insisted that the conservatives still maintain a claim to the Commission presidency, the EU’s top job, because they won the most seats in last month’s Parliament election.
But while the conservatives do hold the largest plurality in Parliament, they are now outnumbered by other mainstream pro-EU forces — the socialists, liberals and Greens.
In addition, EPP heads of state and government are heavily outnumbered on the Council, meaning that Weber faces certain defeat if European Council President Donald Tusk calls a vote on Sunday when leaders gather for a special summit in Brussels to continue their deliberations.
Macron said he wanted the deal clinched by Sunday and warned that the EU could face a long period of uncertainty and disruption if an agreement remains elusive.
“My goal is that … these appointments will be done next Sunday,” Macron said. “Because otherwise, I think that means that we are entering a cycle of institutional dysfunction.”
But even as he called for a swift resolution, it was the mercurial Macron — and his unwillingness to make clear precisely who he wants in the EU’s top jobs — who has posed one of the biggest obstacles so far to a deal.
After a Council summit last week, Macron declared that all three of the lead candidates — Weber of the conservatives, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans of the Socialists and Democrats, and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager of the liberals — had been eliminated from contention.
Those remarks went far beyond what other leaders believed they had agreed behind closed doors. Others, including some in Macron’s own liberal-centrist family, had expected him to say that there was still a chance a majority would form around their own candidate, Vestager, or Timmermans.
Macron’s insistence on playing the role of one-man rebel on the EU stage has begun to grate on other leaders who recognize and respect his success in dismantling the political establishment in France but have long relied on the French president and German chancellor to provide stability for the EU.
Macron could still turn around and support Barnier, but he has shown little enthusiasm for the candidacy of his fellow Frenchman. Some aides have suggested that Macron views Barnier as a representative of an old generation of EU politicians that should be replaced with an injection of new, young blood.
After last week’s inconclusive summit in Brussels, Tusk has stepped up his efforts to build consensus for a leadership package. Before leaving for Japan, Tusk met with leaders in Parliament, including Dacian Cioloş, the new leader of the Renew Europe group that grew out of Macron’s alliance with other centrists, including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, the former liberal leader in Parliament, joined Tusk’s meeting with Cioloş – even though Verhofstadt technically no longer has any official leadership position. Verhofstadt has been mounting a campaign for Parliament president, and his insistence on attending the meeting with Tusk highlighted his ambition to secure a top job. The liberals described Verhofstadt’s presence as a matter of “transition” between the new and old group leadership.
Meanwhile, little has emerged of the results of a meeting that Merkel convened in Berlin on Wednesday night with Weber and other conservative leaders, including the party president Joseph Daul.
While some analysts viewed the meeting as an effort to double-down on the support for Weber’s candidacy, the loud pledges of loyalty to the German could also be setting the stage for him to make a dignified withdrawal.
Speculation has also grown about a potential compromise that would install Weber, Timmermans and Vestager as Commission vice presidents — a signal that EU leaders were not ready to give up completely on the Spitzenkandidat process.
Tusk, meanwhile, is trying to speak by phone with all EU leaders who will not be in Osaka, to prepare for Sunday’s summit. Then, on the sidelines of the G20, he is expected to meet with the Europeans who are in Japan, including Macron, Merkel, Rutte, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Tusk will then rush back to host the summit, catching an overnight flight from Osaka that will get him to Brussels by Sunday morning.
Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.