Eastern European states ended up empty-handed in the EU top jobs bonanza after they expended all their political capital in successfully blocking Dutch Socialist Frans Timmermans from becoming president of the executive European Commission.
As a vice president of the outgoing Commission, Timmermans annoyed the nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary for spearheading EU criticism of their record on the rule of law and democratic freedoms. He is now likely to stay on as a vice president in the next Commission, which takes over Nov. 1.
But no candidate from the ex-communist east will now head up any key EU institutions over the next five years following marathon negotiations that have highlighted the bloc’s growing divisions.
German conservative Ursula von der Leyen has been nominated to lead the Commission, France’s Christine Lagarde will head the European Central Bank, Belgium’s Charles Michel will replace Poland’s Donald Tusk as chairman of EU summits and Spanish Socialist Joseph Borrell will become the bloc’s top diplomat.
In the acrimonious three-day summit, which ended Tuesday, the easterners not only wasted a chance to boost their institutional clout. They also upset wealthier western European states, which had grown impatient with them for refusing to cooperate on migration, climate change and other issues.
“The V4 have dug their heels in and managed to block Timmermans because of his willingness to stand up for EU law,” one EU official said, referring to the so-called Visegrad group comprising Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “They’ve been obstructionist, gotten their way and feel emboldened while having a questionable commitment to European values.”
Another diplomat said von der Leyen, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was unlikely to prove a pushover on democratic standards. The European Parliament must still approve her nomination.
“Yes they blocked Timmermans, but they ended up with nothing much else aside from supporting von der Leyen, and she has no reason to be soft on the rule of law,” the diplomat said.
Several easterners, including Slovakia’s Maros Sefcovic and Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, currently head of the World Bank, had been tipped for one of the top EU jobs, but the region’s governments failed to unite around any one candidate.
On Wednesday, the fifth and final EU job up for grabs, the president of the European Parliament, went to Italy’s David Sassoli.
East vs West
The Visegrad 4 have become increasingly at odds with the EU, refusing to help host refugees reaching Europe and striking down more ambitious climate goals, citing their economic unpreparedness.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who declared the blocking of Timmermans an “important success,” stands accused of flirting with authoritarianism.
Both Orban and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have tightened controls on their courts and judges, media and academics, as well as non-governmental groups.
Despite alarm in Western Europe and among rights groups that their moves violate democratic principles, they remain popular at home thanks to generous social spending programs and their tough line on migrants.
Without prominent representation in Brussels now, the risk is that the eastern states may drift further away from western European nations, which are net payers into the EU budget and which increasingly resent helping to subsidize governments that then attack and undermine liberal values.
However, the easterners seemed broadly happy with von der Leyen’s surprise nomination. She won praise in Poland and elsewhere as German defense minister for strongly criticizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and her support for a bigger NATO presence in the region.
“I had a chance to speak with Ms. von der Leyen and I think she is a good choice,” said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.