Merkel Faces Mutiny Over Her Half-Baked Plan for Top EU Job

(Bloomberg) -- Sign up to the Brussels Edition, a daily morning briefing on what matters most in the heart of the European Union.

If there was one thing Angela Merkel didn’t factor into her plan to make Socialist Frans Timmermans the European Union’s next chief executive, it was what one official in the room called the “rebellion of rabbits.”

As she flew back from the G-20 in Japan, the German chancellor and veteran of many an EU marathon summit was fairly confident that the 58-year-old Dutchman would be accepted by the rest of the leaders gathering in Brussels to decide who to put forward as the next head of the European Commission.

Merkel Faces Mutiny Over Her Half-Baked Plan for Top EU Job

Sure, it was going to be a long night, but she’s faced down worse. As the sun rose, there was no deal and shortly after noon it was decided to reconvene on Tuesday at 11 a.m. after almost 19 hours of going around in circles. It was something almost without precedent.

What became clear was that Merkel had miscalculated the degree of opposition on two fronts: from her own center-right political family that felt betrayed she gave away the top prize. And also the smaller countries that often feel unseen and bared their teeth at the what felt like a stitch-up cooked up in Osaka.

In summary, here is where things were left off:
  • Commission President: Frans Timmermans (Socialist, the Netherlands)
  • Council President: Charles Michel (Liberal, Belgium)
  • Parliament President: Manfred Weber (EPP, Germany)
  • EU foreign policy chief: Ursula von der Leyen (EPP, Germany)
  • Commission First Vice President: Andrej Plenkovic (EPP, Croatia)
  • ECB President: a French female banker

With no decision made, Merkel has got a mutiny on her hands: from her colleagues in the European People’s Party (that hold the most seats in the European Parliament) and a coterie of Eastern and central European nations that have ganged up with Italy to double down.

In a bid to win their support, the chancellor wound up holding one-on-one meetings around dawn on Monday. The following is a sketch of all that went wrong from eight officials briefed on the various mishaps over the course of several sleepless hours.

For starters, the stage hadn’t been properly set. Deals and assurances weren’t put in place. Young powers smelled blood and growing intolerance for backroom deals -- especially in an increasingly fragmented political landscape following May’s EU elections.

Hopping Mad

One person close to the discussions said Merkel was up against “a rebellion of rabbits” -- a reference to the ability of those seen as weak and insignificant to rise up and rebel.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he objected to a package of nominations that was formulated outside Brussels without consulting all members states: “If I sit here, I need the proposal to be made by components of the EU Council, I want the proposal to be discussed here, to be motivated here and to be confronted here.”

It may not have been of Merkel’s making, and she may have endorsed it only in the spirit of compromise, but the fierce opposition to the plan erodes the chancellor’s grip and authority -- even if an accord is reached. Talks have now gone on longer than the 2015 Greek crunch meeting when she was at height of her power.

Hung to Dry?

And French President Emmanuel Macron was not coming to her rescue -- their relationship has been showing signs of strain. “In the long run we must draw consequences of such a failure,” he said at the end of day two. “Our credibility is deeply stained by these endless meetings that lead to nothing. We’re giving an image of Europe that is not serious.”

Merkel Faces Mutiny Over Her Half-Baked Plan for Top EU Job

The decision on who to nominate to the top EU post is a key piece of a puzzle that includes the bloc’s other top positions, including Mario Draghi’s successor at the European Central Bank. The process has been deadlocked as governments make conflicting pitches and the EU tries to share power across geography, gender and political parties.

A Bad Look

Leaders acknowledge time is running out. The eastern-led front of skeptics opposes Merkel’s package as a whole, not just the central element that would see Timmermans at the helm of the commission.

He speaks several languages fluently, including English, French and German, so is considered an ideal fit. Yet, having worked in Brussels only since 2014, he isn’t seen as part of the European establishment. And crucially, for eastern countries, in his current role as the commissioner in charge of rule-of-law issues, he’s given Hungary and Poland a tough time over their democratic standards.

The group was within striking distance of a blocking minority to the deal, and European Council President Donald Tusk was reluctant to put it to a vote, both because of the optics of division and the risk of it being rejected.

Some of those center-right leaders who reluctantly accepted the crux of the plan are vying for the presidency of the EU Council as compensation for waiving their claim to the commission. Under what’s now called the Osaka accord, the EPP would only get the presidency of the European Parliament, a largely symbolic role, and the post of the foreign-policy chief.

Lame Duck

The crisis between Merkel and the EPP hadn’t been anticipated, a European official said, citing a lack of communication between the chancellor and the EPP. Merkel just didn’t see the clash coming, the official said.

Others lashed out at the chancellor, saying the impasse is a sign of how much of a lame duck she is. There was no plan to come up with a proposal that her own people, lawmakers at the EU parliament and other center-right leaders were going to shoot down in such an insulting manner.

“Merkel is leader of the CDU, not the EPP,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov told reporters. “Well many other things came from Osaka as well. But nobody has the right to negotiate on our behalf, from EPP, whatever post they have.”

Borissov went on to soften his stance significantly -- as captured on this Facebook live stream that shows him making nice with Timmermans. But Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar still seemed very unhappy: "The vast majority of the prime ministers don’t believe that we should give up the presidency of the commission quite so easily, without a fight.”

Such open defiance to Merkel would have been unthinkable even a year ago. Today she appears a weakened figure, both at home and internationally, with her term ending in 2021.

By lunchtime on Monday, fatigue was clearly setting in. One official said that some leaders suggested they reconvene two weeks later but Merkel and Macron insisted they need a decision now. And for Solvenia’s Marjan Sarec, the excruciatingly long summit, came at a personal cost -- he said he’s missing his daughter’s 12th birthday.

“All night, all night, all night, we haven’t left. We missed our hotel reservations,” a cranky Borissov told reporters.

Some suggested reconvening in two weeks, but Merkel and Macron objected and when strange proposals started to emerge, they called a break. The chancellor told reporters that after “a bit of sleep,” EU leaders would return with fresh eyes and a will to reach a deal.

One leader, though, kept her cool. “Politics is the attempt to realize the possible – and sometimes that takes time,’’ Merkel said as she looked ahead to day three.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.