It is rare for any leader to emerge jubilant from a gruelling three-day international summit. But French president Emmanuel Macron could not hide his satisfaction after this week’s marathon meeting of EU leaders in Brussels.
Fifty hours of negotiations, including an all-night session, among the EU’s prime ministers and presidents had yielded a team of high-calibre politicians to lead the union’s institutions for the coming years. It marked a “deep renewal” for the European project, Mr Macron rejoiced, even a new era.
“This agreement is the fruit of a deep Franco-German understanding, and of our ability to work with all the European partners,” the French leader added. “This decision is one which means we do not divide Europe — not politically, nor geographically.”
Thirty hours earlier, the picture had looked completely different. Then, a visibly angry Mr Macron had emerged from stalled talks to rail against the “divisions” and “hidden agendas” that made it impossible for the bloc to reach decisions. The EU was once again displaying its vacillation at a time when the world around it was in upheaval.
“We give an image of a Europe that is not serious,” said the French leader.
The EU’s sleep-deprived leaders had, at that stage, just endured a last frantic effort to find a winning package. “It was chaos,” says one diplomat. “It got worse hour by hour.” Another describes the scene as “crazy”.
One prime minister had sounded out colleagues about other leaders standing in earshot. Another proposed a slate of politicians only from Germany and the Benelux. Then, to everyone’s relief, the talks were suspended overnight until Tuesday morning.
This was the EU’s third attempt to appoint new heads of the European Commission, European Central Bank and European Council as well as a foreign policy chief. It looked like an impossible puzzle but the following evening a deal was struck.
Leaders agreed that Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, should become commission president, placing her in charge of the EU’s executive arm. France’s Christine Lagarde secured the ECB presidency. Belgian prime minister Charles Michel was named as European Council president, meaning he will chair meetings of EU leaders, and Spain’s Josep Borrell will lead on foreign policy.
Everyone could claim at least a partial victory. Donald Tusk, the outgoing EU Council president, declared that “it was worth waiting for such an outcome”. Yet to many it looked like a typical backroom stitch-up to serve the interests of Europe’s ancien regime. France and Germany shared the two most important jobs.
The spoils were confined to the EU’s three established political families of conservatives, socialists and liberals — with nothing for the resurgent greens and Eurosceptics — and to the countries of western Europe. It was also a result that allowed the centre-right European People’s party to extend its 15-year grip on the commission presidency.
But if the outcome apparently maintained the status quo, the process — a “clash between diplomatic Europe and political Europe”, according to Susi Dennison of the European Council on Foreign Relations — revealed the strong undercurrents of change.
It highlighted the shrinking power of German chancellor Angela Merkel, who came under fire from her own colleagues in the centre-right EPP, and the disruptive potential of eastern European governments. It laid bare the sheer complexity of decision-making in an EU of 28 nations, whose parliament has become fragmented and unpredictable after the centre-right and centre-left blocs lost their combined majority for the first time in 40 years.
There was also a split over how much importance should be attached to finding jobs for the main parties’ Spitzenkandidaten or “lead candidates” who ran in May’s EU elections — a system championed by the European Parliament and some capitals, especially Berlin, as a way to make the union more democratic.
“They tried the Spitzenkandidaten system. It didn’t work. They tried to find a new way. That was the old way,” says Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. “It reflects the fragmentation and political divisions in the EU.”
Ms Merkel and Mr Macron had arrived in Brussels on Sunday with a joint plan. The German leader had failed at a summit in June to secure the commission presidency for Manfred Weber, a conservative and the EPP’s lead candidate in the elections. His candidacy had encountered a wall of opposition, including from Mr Macron.
Now there was a radically different plan cooked up by the French and German leaders with their Dutch and Spanish counterparts on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka last weekend: Mr Weber would become president of the EU parliament, while Frans Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister who led the centre-left campaign, would take the commission.
For Ms Merkel, the approach had the benefit of satisfying her Social Democrat coalition partners at home while hopefully pleasing her own party by finding a prominent role for Mr Weber.
Shortly after arriving in Brussels, Ms Merkel discovered that her own political family saw the deal as a surrender. A stormy pre-meeting of EPP leaders at the Palais des Académies on Sunday set the stage for what was to follow, as prime ministers including Croatia’s Andrej Plenkovic and Latvia’s Krisjanis Karins rebelled over a plan that they argued was against the EPP’s interests.
Boyko Borisov, the conservative prime minister of Bulgaria, arrived at the summit stony faced, saying: “Merkel is chairman of the CDU. Not the EPP.”
Mr Timmermans also faced implacable opposition from the “Visegrad Four” group of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. The Dutchman has fought battles with the Polish and Hungarian governments in his current role as commission first vice-president charged with preserving the rule of law.
Unwilling to give up on a jobs package that she hoped would shield her from political damage at home, Ms Merkel held last-ditch talks with other EPP leaders in the early hours of Monday that failed to deliver a breakthrough despite what one diplomat describes as “arm twisting”.
It set the stage for the chaotic period of negotiations that leaders endured before Mr Tusk suspended the summit.
The package that did eventually emerge after talks resumed on Tuesday bore a clear French imprimatur: Mr Macron had championed the cause of Ms von der Leyen and now added Ms Lagarde for the ECB. He pitched the idea of a package based around the two women to Ms Merkel during a lull in talks.
Mr Timmermans was out and the centre-right would get the commission presidency after all. The impasse was broken and a consensus reached remarkably quickly, despite failing to meet one of the basic criteria EU leaders had set themselves: regional balance. All four of the people chosen are from western Europe, and three are from the EU’s six founding countries.
Warsaw and Budapest crowed about toppling Mr Timmermans. But they ended up with Ms von der Leyen, a pro-gay marriage modernising centrist who may turn out to be tougher on democratic backsliding in the east than her predecessor. There was no big job for the region. Diplomats say it reinforced the impression that central and eastern European governments, whose interests often diverge, can be good at wrecking but less so at building.
In a final twist, when it came to a vote by EU leaders on the first German commission president in 50 years, Ms Merkel found herself in the extraordinary position of having to abstain because her Social Democrat allies back in Berlin were furious at her for dropping the lead candidate system. All other leaders voted in favour of the deal.
This week’s events revealed how Ms Merkel’s authority is dwindling. She once ruled supreme over the EPP, but this time she faced open revolt. At home, the EU jobs deal has given the SPD a reason to quit the coalition, which would end Ms Merkel’s career.
It also illustrated the declining power of the EPP, which for the past two and a half years has held the commission, council and parliament presidencies. The centre of gravity of EPP MEPs has shifted from west to east and towards a conservative-nationalist worldview.
The jobs deal was a blow to the European Parliament and supporters of the lead candidate system. But the legislature is far from cowed. Ms von der Leyen’s appointment requires the approval of MEPs at a confirmation vote in mid-July. The numbers could be tight, which means Ms von der Leyen will have to allow MEPs to shape her programme to win confirmation.
“It might appear paradoxical that this unpredictable politics in a fragmented Europe is translating into a very old school, backroom arrangement,” says Alberto Alemanno, professor of European law at HEC business school in Paris. “It is paradoxical, but this is not a done deal. Far from it.”
Mr Macron was clearly the winner of the week. He may have extended the EPP’s tenure at the top of the commission, but he sees Ms von der Leyen as a pro-European open to French ideas on defence and economic integration. He installed Mr Michel, one of his closest allies, in the European Council. And he can count on Ms Lagarde at the ECB doing whatever it takes to defend the eurozone. No wonder he was exultant.
“It is an Act 2 that begins for our Europe,” he said. “A new team, profoundly renewed, new faces, a breath of fresh air.”