Timmermans faces Eastern resistance for top EU job; search for ECB head postponed


FILE PHOTO: European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES), speaks at the Plenary Hall during the election night for European elections at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 27, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans has emerged as the favourite to be named the EU's next chief executive, diplomats and officials said on Sunday ahead of a summit in Brussels, but faces resistance from eastern European countries.

EU leaders were also meant to choose the next president of the European Central Bank (ECB), but that decision seems now likely to be postponed for lack of consensus.

Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister who speaks six languages, has become the compromise candidate for France and Germany after a G20 summit in Japan this weekend, two diplomats and one European Parliament adviser said.

If confirmed, the choice would mark a victory for centrists and liberals, who challenged what they saw as increasing German domination in Brussels, and would end 15 years of centre-right control of the European Commission.

"It looks to be Timmermans for the European Commission president," one diplomat involved in the talks told Reuters, a view echoed by a second envoy when asked about the selection process for five top posts in a new five-year mandate.

But Eastern European leaders arriving at the summit were opposed to Timmermans, who in his current role as vice president of the Commission has repeatedly accused Poland and Hungary of violating civil rights.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote to EU conservative leaders before the summit to underline his opposition. Poland and Croatia have also expressed concerns.

"I'm afraid that this person is not really the right one to unite Europe," Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis told reporters.

To be appointed, the next Commission president needs the support of at least 72% of the 28 member states, who must represent at least 65% of the EU population.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND MINIMUM WAGE

If confirmed as successor to Jean-Claude Juncker, Timmermans, 58, has said he would combat climate change, ensure a minimum wage for Europeans and build ties with Africa, home of many of the migrants who have come to Europe in the last few years.

Antti Rinne, Finland's first left-leaning prime minister in 20 years, told Reuters he backed Timmermans as Commission chief.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Timmermans was one of the candidates capable of doing the job, along with Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager, currently competition commissioner, and Frenchman Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator.

Earlier on Sunday, current European Council president Donald Tusk proposed giving the Commission post to the Socialist and Democrats political bloc, for which Timmermans was the lead candidate in May's European Parliament elections.

The president of the EU Commission needs to be chosen before Wednesday, when the European Parliament elects its president.

The appointment of Timmermans to head the Commission would pave the way for German centre-right EU lawmaker Manfred Weber to win the European Parliament's chair.

The other main jobs up for grabs are the presidency of the European Council - grouping the EU governments - the EU's foreign policy chief and the governor of the ECB.

Leaders are seeking a balance of men and women in the top positions, and also a balance between eastern and western member states.

Female candidates include Vestager; Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian head of the World Bank; and Spanish Economy Minister Nadia Calvino.

ECB FOR ANOTHER DAY

Finland's Rinne said Helsinki had a strong claim to the ECB job, with experienced candidates in Erkki Liikanen, a former Finnish central bank chief, and Bank of Finland governor Olli Rehn, a former European economics commissioner.

However, a successor to Mario Draghi seems unlikely to be named on Sunday, as leaders of the 19-country euro zone remain divided, with Germany and France both hoping to land that job for one of their nationals.

Berlin is seen as backing Jens Weidmann, a former top adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel and currently head of the Bundesbank. He is best known for his opposition to the easy-money policy the ECB adopted under Draghi.

France is seen as favouring Francois Villeroy de Galhau, the scion of a French industrialist family who heads the French central bank. He has a reputation as a monetary centrist who favours closer European integration.

But Macron told reporters as he arrived that this appointment might be postponed.

One EU official said that, to avoid excessive political wrangling over such a crucial economic position, EU leaders could ask their finance ministers to make a decision at a meeting on July 8-9 or in early September.

(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Andreas Rinke and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing by Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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