Frans Timmermans is emerging as the frontrunner to become European Commission president under a possible compromise that would promote the centre-left Dutchman to Brussels’ biggest job and break an impasse over a slate of top EU roles.
Manfred Weber, the centre-right’s official candidate for the commission, would become president of the European Parliament, according to several senior diplomats. The trade-offs being explored could also send a Frenchman to the European Central Bank, making François Villeroy de Galhau, the head of the Banque de France, the successor to Mario Draghi.
Talks are continuing between EU leaders attending the G20 summit in Osaka. Aides warned that the idea could easily fall apart, especially if a Polish-led group of member states object to Mr Timmermans.
France, Germany and Spain are among the countries potentially ready to test the solution at a planned EU summit on Sunday. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister and the effective leader of the socialist family of parties, has told colleagues that Mr Timmermans is now “the front runner” to lead the commission, the EU’s executive.
“Sunday’s summit will be about Plan Timmermans,” said one diplomat.
Mr Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister who speaks six languages, is first vice-president of the current commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker. He led the centre-left campaign in May’s European Parliament elections as a so-called Spitzenkandidat.
Speaking on Saturday, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, signalled her potential support for the Dutchman. In a reference to Mr Timmermans and Mr Weber, she said the “two real Spitzenkandidaten” were again being seriously considered and should be “part of the solution”.
“We are on a path that makes it perhaps possible to come to a solution tomorrow,” the chancellor told reporters in Osaka.
The Dutchman has a northern, economically liberal profile that makes him palatable to Germany and other centre-right leaders.
His biggest obstacle remains the group of central and eastern European countries. Leaders of those nations were dismayed by the way Mr Timmermans pursued rule of law infringements on behalf of the commission. Poland and Hungary have told negotiators the Dutchman is unacceptable.
Officially the German-led centre-right European People’s party, which proposed Mr Weber to head the commission, is expected to stand by its candidate.
But the proposed compromise would enable it to save the concept of Spitzenkandidaten leading the commission — an important principle for the parliament — while handing the centre-right family the European Council presidency.
Leaders from newer member states such as Andrej Plenkovic, the Croatian prime minister, and Klaus Iohannis, the Romanian president, are also possible contenders for the council post.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has previously named Mr Timmermans as someone who has the expertise and experience to take on Brussels’ top job.
But Paris is waiting for the full package to become clear before it throws its full support behind the compromise.
Senior diplomats involved in talks suggested the price to win over Paris may be the appointment of Mr Villeroy de Galhau, a German speaker, to lead the ECB. Benoît Cœuré, who is French and an ECB executive board member, also remains an option.
“This is serious,” said an adviser to an EU leader, adding that it was the closest the EU had yet come to a compromise deal between EU leaders.
Some diplomats remain sceptical, arguing that any move to put forward Mr Timmermans may simply be a stepping stone before a another deal. “I have heard so many paths here in Osaka,” said one senior national diplomat involved in talks. “A lot of recycling and dead ends . . . it is way too early.”
Any deal will heavily depend on Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, who is under political pressure to maintain support for Mr Weber, a Bavarian who is opposed by more than 10 EU leaders.
Part of the climbdown could involve Mr Weber’s name being formally put to the summit once again on Sunday, and the German being given the presidency of the parliament if it were to fail.
One EPP insider speculated that it may still take two summits for Ms Merkel “to finally let go of Weber”. Another noted the lack of women in the package and noted the possibility that Margrethe Vestager, the Danish head of EU competition enforcement, might yet emerge as a last-minute compromise.
Mr Timmermans has the backing of centre-left prime ministers and would secure the consent of Mark Rutte, the liberal prime minister of the Netherlands, whose government has always formally backed Mr Timmermans.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has warned leaders he would be willing to move to a majority vote if necessary to ensure a “swift” decision on the bloc’s next batch of leaders.
But it is unclear whether he would be willing to override the objections of an entire geographic caucus such as the Visegrad group, which includes Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Romania and some Baltic countries have also expressed reservations about Mr Timmermans.