EU leaders set for major battle over bloc’s top jobs

With several top officials on their way out of the European Union by the end of fall, EU leaders are gathering Thursday for a major political horse-trading exercise that is as mindboggling as it is competitive on how to replace them while keeping all 28 member states happy. Well, at least most of them.

The EU is responsible for coordinating common policies on sectors ranging from the single market to agriculture; from competition issues to immigration. The main posts up for grabs Thursday are the head of the EU’s powerful executive arm, the European Commission — held by Jean-Claude Juncker — and the president of the European Council, the body that represents the member states in Brussels. That position is currently held by Donald Tusk.

The EU’s parliament must endorse some posts.

French President Emmanuel Macron hit Brussels early for a series of meetings, hours before the summit starts mid-afternoon, setting off a chain reaction of informal huddles involving German Chancellor Angela Merkel — leader of the EU’s biggest power — to weigh up potential candidates based on their political affiliation, nationality and gender, and perhaps their diplomatic acumen.

“The number of contacts is really breathtaking, so let’s hope it will produce an outcome,” said a senior EU official involved in the talks, who asked not to be identified because of the secrecy surrounding the deliberations.

Tusk, who will chair the two-day summit, said that his many contacts “have shown that there are different views, different interests, but also a common will to finalize this process before the first session” of the EU parliament on July 2. If no consensus emerges by Friday, another leaders’ summit could be convened before the end of the month.

For weeks now, each nation has sought to jockey their favorite into the best position to exert the most clout for the next five to eight years.

Other jobs up for grabs are the EU foreign policy chief, the head of the European Central Bank and the president of the European Parliament.

The perks are easy to see, as Tusk and Juncker can hobnob and negotiate with the great and mighty like U.S. President Donald Trump or Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while the head of the ECB can set monetary policy for the 19-nation eurozone.

The leaders of EU institutions are supposed to impartially represent the interests of all member nations on the global stage and at home. But patriotism sets in as officials from individual EU countries push candidates from their homelands to rule the roost of the bloc’s population of 500 million and the world’s biggest economic alliance.

Beyond national concerns, there is geography too. There needs to be a mix of big member states, like Merkel’s Germany, and small ones, like Juncker’s Luxembourg. The west and east, north and south also need their balance. The outgoing group was lopsidedly Italian, with Antonio Tajani holding the parliament top post, Mario Draghi head of the ECB and Federica Mogherini the foreign policy chief.

Then there is the political competition between Christian Democrats, Socialists, free-market liberals and even Greens to make sure enough of their colors shine through. Many feel that even though the Christian Democratic group is the biggest in parliament, having Tusk, Tajani and Juncker was too much of a good thing, and their group was weakened by losses in last month’s EU elections.

This time around, it has been increasingly stressed that women need to be better represented and get at least one more top post.

It makes for an implausible array of candidates who will have to fit into a puzzle that can make the head of even the most hardened politician spin. Even Merkel has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Tusk, or perhaps Juncker, even though she has denied it.

More plausible candidates for top jobs include current prime ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, Stefan Lofven of Sweden, Andrej Plenkovic of Croatia and Charles Michel of Belgium. Like Merkel, many have denied these kinds of ambitions.

In the past, such shows of disinterest have often helped secure a top job, while the early candidates to emerge often disappear just as quickly. The combination of all that makes for the murkiest of political deal-making.

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