It is “quicker to elect a pope” than pick a new set of presidents for the EU, Irish premier Leo Varadkar quipped.
As the bloc’s leaders departed from Brussels after a second inconclusive summit, the EU conclave’s decision-making process looked nearly as opaque and male-dominated as the Vatican’s.
“We got nowhere,” Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said on Friday.
The delays may be nothing to worry about, Mr Rutte remarked: in 2014 it took EU leaders dinner and three summits to fill the Brussels job vacancies. Some leaders around the table are also veterans of months-long coalition talks. “That’s the way it goes,” Mr Rutte said.
This year however, there are an unprecedented number of positions to fill: simultaneous decisions are needed on the presidents of the European Commission, European Council and European Central Bank.
Other factors also make the diplomacy and politics in this EU cycle even more elaborate than usual. While pan-European political parties have existed since the 1970s, leaders have never split along party lines so clearly within the European Council, where national interests and alliances were once dominant. Thursday’s dinner, with three parties of roughly similar size in attendance, was a case in point.
The deadlock resulted in the effective elimination of their three official candidates in the race to be European Commission president: the centre-right candidate Manfred Weber, Frans Timmermans of the socialists and the liberal Margrethe Vestager.
Some leaders — including Mr Rutte — still refuse to write them off. All the candidates will have a chance to resurrect their prospects by building a coalition in the European Parliament early next week.
But with the assembly’s group leaders badly divided, it now looks a long shot. Asked whether the chances of the so-called Spitzenkandidatenwere dead, Emmanuel Macron of France replied: “The answer is yes”.
The party stand-off within the European Council reflects how liberal and socialist leaders have begun to copy methods of the centre-right European People’s party, which has dominated Brussels positions for the past 15 years, in part through showing greater purpose and collective discipline.
But three factions well-matched in size and resolve make finding a breakthrough extremely hard. It is a measure of the desperation that some leaders mentioned resorting to the so-called D’Hondt method, a Belgian mathematician’s 19th century formula for granting the right to choose jobs according to order of relative size.
“We’re now thinking outside the box,” said Krisjanis Karins, the Latvian prime minister representing the centre-right EPP in job negotiations.
The challenge for Angela Merkel’s EPP is now how to retain the claim on Brussels top job, while meeting the need for a balanced team at the top of the EU. “If we go the way of the parties we will end up with five old men again and then we are doomed,” said one senior EU diplomat.
During discussions at the summit, the liberal Mr Macron vehemently opposed simply divvying up jobs along party lines, arguing it would destroy the role of the European Council in setting the direction of the EU.
But in the past that had been enabled, in the first instance, by France and Germany proposing candidates to get the ball rolling in negotiations. This time Paris and Berlin are on separate sides of the party divide.
Ms Merkel and Mr Macron have called a truce of sorts, promising to ensure neither side is overruled in the decision-making. Ms Merkel said she and the French president would need to “work hand in hand”. Further progress could be made at the G20 summit in Japan next week, before EU leaders reconvene for a dinner next Sunday.
It brings the EU into the most sensitive stage of all: testing the names of candidates, including some national leaders sitting around the summit table. Serving premiers are naturally wary of signalling interest since the process is highly unpredictable and failed bids can badly backfire at home.
Speculation is rife over potential candidates. Options discussed for the EPP include Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach; Michel Barnier, the Brexit negotiator; the Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenkovic; Kristalina Georgieva of the World Bank; and Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. But EPP insiders are quick to point out flaws with all of them.
Liberals and socialists are in turn battling over the position of European Council president. On the liberal slate are names of two outgoing prime ministers: Belgium’s Charles Michel and Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark.
The socialists, meanwhile, are considering reviving the political career of former Danish premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt or turning to António Costa, the Portuguese prime minister.
Some serving leaders are growing frustrated at constantly being asked about their ambitions. Ms Merkel said she was “upset” at her previous denials not being respected.
Mr Rasmussen, who was probably attending his final summit representing Denmark, was more relaxed. “It’s obvious that if they suddenly feel that they need a pragmatic, middle-aged, composed and liberal Scandinavian, then they can always call,” he said. “But I don’t anticipate that they’ll do that.”
Reporting by Alex Barker, Mehreen Khan, Rochelle Toplensky and Michael Peel in Brussels