EU leaders (minus the U.K.’s Theresa May) arrive in Brussels Friday for an informal European Council summit on reforming the bloc’s institutions and how to deal with the budget hole created by Brexit.
On the budget — the multiannual financial framework or MFF — the key issue is how to deal with the loss of the U.K.’s contributions once the current seven-year budget cycle comes to an end in December 2020. Some countries argue the EU will have to cut its cloth and spend less, while others argue the opposite.
The biggest institutional fight is likely to be over how to appoint the next European Commission president in 2019. Most countries support party groups having Spitzenkandidaten (or lead candidates) for the post. The controversy is over what happens next. Under the process that was used for the first time in 2014 to appoint Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission presidency is awarded to the political group winning the most seats in the European Parliament.
It is primarily a handshake deal as EU treaties require the Council, acting by qualified majority, to nominate for parliamentary approval a Commission president “taking account of the results of the European Parliament election.”
“Spitzenkandidat is a model that had results and my opinion is that it’s good to continue with this model” — Klaus Iohannis, president of Romania
Though many EU leaders agree on the principle of rerunning the process in 2019, some argue that the European Council should keep control over the appointment. They want the Council to be free to choose a different candidate if they don’t like the Spitzenkandidat from the winning party.
Here’s POLITICO’s at-a-glance guide to where some key countries stand on the two big issues:
Germany — in favor
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was not a fan of the process at the outset but she finally supported Juncker in 2014 and had stressed the need to revisit the issue for the next elections. However, she backed the system earlier this week, saying the procedure would make candidates who run for European elections more visible. “It still remains a complicated process, but by naming top candidates, it gives more visibility,” Merkel said in her weekly podcast.
Italy — in favor
Italy is one of the most vocal advocates of the Spitzenkandidat process. Ex-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has made clear in several speeches that he wants EU institutions to be more democratic. In a statement published on his party’s website last year, Renzi, who is the main center-left candidate in Italy’s March 4 election, said the Democratic Party “believed in Europe,” and would like to “continue on the path of more democratic institutions” with the “direct election” of the president of the Commission.
Ireland — in favor
In a speech to the Parliament in January, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar advocated going even further than the Spitzenkandidat process with more direct democracy. “Let’s make permanent the Spitzenkandidat system, and democratize choosing candidates for other leading positions within the EU,” he said.
Romania — in favor
While in Brussels last month, Klaus Iohannis, the Romanian president, gave his backing. “Spitzenkandidat is a model that had results and my opinion is that it’s good to continue with this model,” he said. The country is in favor of maintaining a geographical and gender balance for the top EU institutional positions though.
France — against
Despite his push for a more democratic EU, French President Emmanuel Macron has shown little enthusiasm for a process that virtually guarantees victory for a big, traditional group like the European People’s Party. French officials also insist that committing in advance to the process would be illegal.
“The question is not about whether political parties should identify lead candidates,” a senior EU diplomat told POLITICO. “The question is, should the European Council be destined to have its hand tied in advance by accepting an automatic designation of the candidate it will then propose to the Parliament?”
The diplomat said the position “widely shared among member states” is that the European Council has its own responsibility, “which is defined in the Treaty.” EU leaders themselves inject democratic accountability into the process, the diplomat argued. “None of the European heads of state and government believe they have not been elected in through an undemocratic process.”
So France is in favor of parties nominating Spitzenkandidaten it just isn’t so keen on the Council having to accept the winning candidate automatically.
The Netherlands — against
The Dutch government believes things should be considered “step by step.” In short, The Hague attaches “great value” to the procedure “set out in the Treaties,” a Dutch diplomat told POLITICO, and after the election, it “needs to become clear whether the European Parliament lead candidates are able to secure majority support,” he added. But as foreseen in the treaties, the position of the Parliament will be “taken into account” in the appointment of a new Commission president.
Poland — against
The Polish government has publicly opposed the process, saying the treaty makes clear that the election of the Commission president is the responsibility of the European Council. “We have to be very clear: that process can’t deform the treaty regime by the factual state of play in the Parliament,” Konrad Szymański, the Polish EU affairs minister, told reporters on Monday. “We have to find a compromise between obvious aspirations of the political powers in the Parliament and the treaty-based regime.” Szymański also added that “we have to keep in mind in the end” that we should back “a right political, geographical balance at the top level positions in the EU,” and the Spitzenkandidat process “won’t be helpful.”
Czech Republic — against
The Czech Republic’s newly elected president, Andrej Babiš, has made criticisms of the Spitzenkandidat process. “We cannot be in the position that we have nothing to say, that there are only two big nations and the Commission which are really deciding about everything,” Babiš told POLITICO in a recent interview. “Who should decide about the chief of the Commission? All member states,” said Babiš. “Not somebody saying ‘ah, this is our Spitzenkandidat.’”
Finland — against
Helsinki is against the process because there is a need “to preserve the balance between institutions” and “the role of the European Council in nominating the Commission President,” according to an official statement released after a meeting of EU sherpas on Monday in Brussels.
Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal and Slovakia are also opposed to using the Spitzenkandidat in 2019.
Increasing the EU budget
Germany and Italy — in favor
In an op-ed published by POLITICO, Peter Altmaier, Germany’s newly elected finance minister, and his Italian counterpart Pier Carlo Padoan said that “Italy and Germany would be open to considering a limited increase of the EU budget.”
But they lay down two conditions: First, that the budget is reoriented to finance “European public goods.” They argue that the overall tax burden on citizens need not be increased and could actually be slightly reduced. Second, they believe the budget should provide for a more efficient cohesion policy. Larger migration flows and the resulting political crises call for an enhanced European response at our common borders, they added.
In a position paper ahead of the summit, the German government set out that it, “intends to continue to make an appropriate contribution to the EU’s budget and to strengthen the EU so that it can fulfil its tasks. At the same time, it is clear that the future funding system also needs to ensure fair burden-sharing and avoid budgetary burdens that are excessive in relative terms.”
France — in favor
In his Sorbonne speech in September, Macron made clear that the EU needs a “stronger budget” at the heart of Europe, and “at the heart of the eurozone.” France is one of the major contributors to the EU budget. However, French diplomats argue they first need to have an idea of the general picture of the future budget at 27 and wait for the Commission’s assessment before taking a final decision.
Visegrad 4 plus Croatia, Romania and Slovenia — in favor
In a statement released earlier this month, the Visegard Four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) joined by Croatia, Romania and Slovenia said they were “aware” of the “mounting challenges the Union is currently facing.” However, the statement said, an increase of the total amount of the next MFF above 1 percent of the EU Gross National Income should be “taken into consideration,” as tackling current challenges “should not be at the expense of [cohesion policy].”
Finland — on the fence
The Finish government acknowledged that discussions on the MFF will be “difficult” because of the gap left by Brexit. “We do not believe that this shortfall should be met,” said Juha Sipilä, Finland’s prime minister. “But neither are we part of the so-called 1 percent group, the net contributors holding the toughest line.”
“We do have some scope for flexibility and we will have a say over the package as a whole,” Sipila added. For Finland, the EU should continue funding economic growth, employment and skills and must “better reflect” migration and defence cooperation. “In relative terms, the funding for research, development and innovation must be increased.”
The Netherlands — against
In a position paper issued last week, the Dutch government called for a “future-proof, financially sustainable and flexible” budget, adding that Brexit had urged the EU to redefine priorities. But the possibility of increasing the country’s gross contributions to the EU budget “as a result of Brexit” risks “further exacerbating the Netherlands’ position as one of the largest net contributors” in the EU.
Denmark and Austria are against an increase of the MFF while Greece, Spain and Ireland are in favor.