After failing to reach a decision during over 18 hours of talks on Sunday and Monday, EU leaders reconvened in Brussels to try to agree who should lead the bloc’s institutions for the coming five years. Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans, a frontrunner for European Commission president, faced strong opposition from the Czech Republic and fellow Visegrad Four states.
Upon his arrival in Brussels on Tuesday, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš (ANO) told journalists that for Frans Timmermans to head the EU executive branch would be “a total catastrophe” for central European states.
“We want someone in the presidency of the Commission who doesn’t have a negative view about our region. Mr Timmermans is not acceptable for us. That’s it.”
As EU Commission first vice-president, Timmermans was the public face of efforts to compel the Czech Republic and other states to take in asylum-seekers in line with a mandatory redistribution mechanism.
The issue caused a rift between the Visegrad Four countries – the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – and other European governments who accused them of a lack of solidarity.
In an earlier interview with Czech Radio, state secretary for EU affairs Milena Hrdinková said EU leaders had failed to agree on a new European Commission president for a variety of reasons.
“It’s a complicated, difficult process that reflects the different priorities of different member states. Some are presenting it as being due to objections from the Visegrad Four or Italy. In fact, it is because no compromise has yet achieved a balance.
“Mr Timmermans is a big personality with great ambition and strong opinions. He is very capable, ambitious and experienced. But for the Visegrad Four, as well as other countries and the EPP, the European People's Party, he would not be a suitable president. He divides rather than unites Europe.”
Under the so-called spitzenkandidat process, the new European Commission president is traditionally the nominee of the largest parliamentary group, currently the EPP.
But according to a gentleman’s agreement hammered out on the margins of last week’s G-20 summit in Japan, Timmermans has a chance because the EPP picked a lacklustre candidate – Manfred Weber, a staunch conservative best known for resisting the expulsion of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from the group for undermining the rule of law.
Some are characterising the Visegrad Four’s objections to Timmermans as stemming from their respective governments’ illiberalism. Orbán says they cannot support Timmermans because he is “George Soros’ man” and opposes anyone with a different world view.
For his part, Mr Babiš argues the eventual successor to Jean-Claude Juncker – whoever it may be – should not comment on political matters but rather focus on implementing European Council conclusions.
Mr Babiš has said current European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager would be a suitable candidate, as she understands central Europe and would respect the region’s interests. Another name being floated by those opposing Timmermans’s bid is that of World Bank chief executive Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian economist.
Either would address calls for a geographical and gender balance, proponents say. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen also emerged on Tuesday as a possible compromise candidate.
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