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EU faces tense talks over top jobs in Brussels

EU's J-C Juncker (L) and Donald Tusk

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Successors to Jean-Claude Juncker (L) and Donald Tusk will take office in November

EU leaders have begun summit talks in Brussels aimed at deciding who will get the EU’s top jobs and what to prioritise in the next five years.

European Council President Donald Tusk, chairing Thursday’s talks, wants candidates to be named at this summit. Then the Council’s choices require approval by the European Parliament.

The most powerful job is EU Commission President. Ex-Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker has held the post since 2014.

Brexit is not a major issue this time.

Mr Tusk is to give the government leaders a brief update on Brexit developments on Friday. The official EU position is that the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with Theresa May – and rejected by the UK Parliament – will not be reopened.

But Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier noted on Thursday that the EU was awaiting the election of a new UK prime minister and “hearing about their proposed approach to Brexit”.

When asked if Brexit negotiations could be extended again beyond the 31 October deadline, Mr Varadkar was very sceptical.

“There’s very much a strong view that there shouldn’t be any more extensions. There’s enormous hostility towards extension amongst the EU. I have endless patience but my colleagues do not,” he said.

Besides the replacements for Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker, the leaders also have to decide on a new European Central Bank president and a high representative for foreign policy.

Media captionIrish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in the centre-right European People’s Party

The European Commission drafts EU laws, oversees national budgets, enforces EU treaties and negotiates international trade deals. So Commission president is the most coveted EU post.

The nominee requires the support of least 21 of the 28 EU leaders and a majority in the parliament. The newly-elected parliament meets on 2 July.

Mr Tusk sought to dampen expectations, saying: “Yesterday I was cautiously optimistic. Today I’m more cautious than optimistic.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “it may be that today we still won’t find a solution – but that still wouldn’t be a threat”.

“We need a joint solution. That’s why I’m against the Council making a proposal that lacks parliamentary support.”

‘Climate neutral’ goal

Before moving on to discussing the top jobs over dinner, the summit is to adopt a Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024. The leaked draft highlights:

  • more intensive efforts to counter climate change
  • measures to boost security on the EU’s external borders and control migration into the bloc
  • more resources to fight disinformation and “hybrid threats” which undermine European democracy
  • better co-ordinated industrial policy, research and investment targeting digital technologies.

France, Germany and the Netherlands were among a large group of states urging the EU to set the goal of going “climate neutral” by 2050. That means reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level where they are balanced by green initiatives, such as tree planting.

But reports say Poland, the Czech Republic and some other countries heavily reliant on coal-fired power plants opposed putting a 2050 target in the summit conclusions. They are worried about the cost of shifting to green energy.

An EU official said the leaders decided therefore to relegate the date to a footnote, which says: “For a large majority of member states, climate neutrality must be achieved by 2050.”

Media captionNo more beef? Five things you can do to help stop rising global temperatures

EU balancing act

The choices for the EU’s top jobs have to take account of last month’s European elections and achieve an acceptable balance regarding large and small states, gender and geography.

The May 2019 European elections produced more political fragmentation, including a surge in the numbers of Green and liberal MEPs.

The contest for a new Commission president began with the parliament’s “Spitzenkandidat” (lead candidate) race, but leaders do not have to go along with the result.

The parliament says the president should come from the party with the most seats – which would mean Manfred Weber, a German in the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

Strong potential rivals to Mr Weber are EU veteran Frans Timmermans (Dutch, from the centre-left Socialist bloc) and Danish EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager, a liberal.

But French President Emmanuel Macron is reported to favour Michel Barnier for Commission president.

EU faces tense talks over top jobs in Brussels

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