EU leaders are in Brussels to consider candidates for the organisation’s most important jobs in the wake of parliamentary elections.
The presidency of the EU Commission, currently held by Jean-Claude Juncker, is among those up for grabs.
One of the candidates, Frans Timmermans, compared the process to brutal TV drama Game of Thrones.
The elections saw the big centrist blocs lose their majority with nationalists and Greens gaining ground.
It leaves the EU more fragmented, so finding consensus may be harder than in the past.
The talks over dinner on Tuesday may not even result in a shortlist of candidates and the haggling is likely to take months.
It is more an occasion for leaders to assess the political mood and explore possible combinations, to ensure a stable balance of political opinions, geography and gender.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May will participate, but Brussels sources say there will be little or no discussion of Brexit.
The other top EU officials to be replaced later this year are: European Council President Donald Tusk (Polish); European Central Bank President Mario Draghi (Italian) and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini (Italian).
After lengthy negotiations, the new top officials will take up their posts on 1 November, except for the new European Council chief, who starts on 1 December.
In 2014 Mr Juncker was chosen to head the Commission as the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) candidate, after the EPP had won the election.
But it is a much tougher challenge this time for the EPP’s candidate Manfred Weber – a German – after his bloc shrank from 217 seats to 180 in the 751-seat parliament.
Party leaders from the EPP and other parliamentary groupings have met in Brussels in an effort to agree on a “Spitzenkandidat” – lead candidate – for Mr Juncker’s job. The Commission enforces EU rules and drafts EU laws, so it is the most coveted post in the 28-nation bloc.
There are already signs of disagreement among two of the EU’s major figures, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
She backs Mr Weber for the presidency of the Commission, but he suggested other names including chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, liberal candidate Margrethe Vestager and Mr Timmermans, a centre-left candidate from the Netherlands.
Time to negotiate – and compromise
The EU has committed to balance gender, political affiliation and geography when it fills its top jobs.
The leaders of the 28 member states will have to compromise with each other, and with MEPs who get to approve the choice. But this morning the European Parliament watered down its demands for the selection of the president of the European Commission, issuing a statement which says the winner only had to be someone “who made his/her programme and personality known prior to the elections, and engaged in a European-wide campaign”.
That potentially opens the door to candidates who weren’t strictly candidates before, such as Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager or maybe even the chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.
The previous front-runner Manfred Weber, of the European People’s Party, admits that his political family lost seats at the election which weakens his claim on the job.
There are also hints that the European Parliament will focus its efforts on defining the EU’s future direction, rather than seeking a powerful role in picking its personnel. A lot of names will come and go and rise and fall before the process eventually comes to an end later this year.
Mr Juncker, an EU veteran and ex-Prime Minister of Luxembourg, won in 2014 despite opposition from the UK and Hungary.
Mr Macron and some other EU leaders are sceptical about the Spitzenkandidat process. The final choices for the top posts still have to be approved by the European Parliament.
Many nationalists and Eurosceptics – still a minority in the parliament – reject the process, seeing it as an establishment stitch-up.
Because of the new clout of liberals and Greens, Ms Vestager – famous for legal battles with US tech giants – might be seen as a compromise candidate.
Countdown to EU top jobs:
- May-June: Consultations between EU leaders and parliamentary groups
- 20-21 June: European Council decisions
- July: European Parliament votes on nominee for Commission president
- 1 November: New Commission president takes office, along with new High Representative and ECB president
- 1 December: New European Council President takes office