BRUSSELS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron sought to break a deadlock on Tuesday over assigning the EU’s top jobs by proposing France’s Christine Lagarde, now head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to lead the European Central Bank (ECB), diplomatic sources said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker arrives to take part in a European Union leaders summit, in Brussels, Belgium July 2, 2019. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Pool via REUTERS
In his proposal, made to tired EU leaders on a third day of arm-wrestling over who will next hold the bloc’s top posts, Macron also proposed Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen to become president of the European Commission.
The leaders are trying to balance political affiliations, the varying interests of different regions, and an acute lack of women in senior ranks as they seek to fill five top jobs coming vacant later this year.
“Things are going smoothly now,” one source said of discussions around the French president’s proposal.
The marathon talks have underlined the growing fragmentation in the 28-nation European Union. In a sign of a fresh push for a compromise, the start of the leaders’ talks on Tuesday was delayed repeatedly to allow more time for separate consultations.
“Everyone has to understand that they have to shift a little,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. “I say that to everyone. Then there will be a chance of reaching a deal.”
A diplomatic source said Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader, was “very positive” about the proposal of Lagarde, a former center-right French finance minister. She is also likely to welcome the proposal of von der Leyen, who is from Merkel’s governing conservatives.
Italy and ex-communist eastern states had blocked Dutch Socialist Frans Timmermans on Monday from taking up the post of Commission president, the highest-profile job in Brussels, though on Tuesday Spain’s Socialist acting prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, was still sticking by him.
The Commission supervises EU states’ budgets, acts as the bloc’s competition watchdog and conducts trade negotiations with third countries.
Its presidency is the key post of the five, who will shape policy in everything from climate to migration and finance for the world’s biggest economic bloc and its 500 million people.
The struggle to share out the posts — which also include the new head of the European Parliament, the bloc’s top diplomat and the chairman of EU summits — has already taken a toll.
The deadlock has meant the postponement of a separate meeting on Italy’s parlous public finances, and is distracting the EU as a nuclear deal it helped to forge with Iran is edging closer to collapse.
The stalemate in decision-making has also cast fresh doubt on whether the EU can take in any new members from the Western Balkans, some of which are being courted by Moscow.
FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENTS?
It is highly unusual for a summit to run into a third day, and this round is already the third attempt to decide the jobs.
The inability to reach consensus bolsters criticism from anti-establishment nationalists and undermines the EU’s image as it faces multiple external challenges, from the United States, Russia, Iran and China among others.
If Macron’s proposal gets approved, it would be the first time that women have ever been at the helm of the Commission and the ECB, which steers the economies of the 19 member states of the single-currency euro zone.
Because both are center-right politicians, socialist candidates should then take the posts of top EU diplomat and deputy roles at the Commission, diplomats said. Possible names discussed on Tuesday afternoon included Timmermans, Spain’s Joseph Borell and Nadia Calvino or Slovakia’s Maros Sefcovic.
Belgium’s caretaker prime minister, Charles Michel, a liberal, could become the next chairman of EU leaders’ summits, the sources said. Another liberal, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, could also get a senior Commission role, they added.
EU leaders have to seal a deal on Tuesday or risk being overtaken by the new European Parliament, which holds an inaugural session after a continent-wide election in May. It is due to pick its new president on Wednesday and could act independently, barring an agreement by the 28 leaders.
The new EU assembly’s approval is required for the Commission president that the national leaders nominate.
Two sources, however, signaled the Macron package would likely face stiff opposition in the European Parliament as it mostly did not include leading candidates proposed by the various political groups in the assembly.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would prefer a woman as the next head of the European Commission.
Conte also seemed to edge Italy away from any imminent threat of EU action on its large debt by asserting that its 2019 budget deficit looked set to fall to 2.04% of gross domestic product.
The European Commission, which has threatened to launch disciplinary procedures over Rome’s failure to cut public debt, was due to return to the matter on Wednesday.
Reporting by Andreas Rinke, Peter Maushagen, Alexandra Regida, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Richard Lough, Gabriela Baczynska, Alissa de Carbonnel, Belen Carreno in Brussels, Jan Lopatka in Prague, Alan Charlish and Agnieszka Barteczko in Warsaw, Francesco Guarascio in Strasbourg; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Gareth Jones