Macron serves up tension at Brussels breakfast

Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen continued their stumble through EU interinstitutional politics by convening a breakfast on Friday aimed at easing tensions but which wasn’t attended by anyone from the European Parliament.

Since the rejection of France’s nominee for the new European Commission, Macron has insisted that infighting in the European Parliament is creating an institutional crisis that risks paralyzing the EU just as a new leadership team is taking over.

And he had lashed out at von der Leyen, the Commission president-elect, saying she wrongly assured him that the nominee, Sylvie Goulard, would be supported by the main conservative, Socialist and liberal groups. Parliament torpedoed her instead.

Von der Leyen had reached out to the three group leaders — Manfred Weber of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP); Iratxe Garcia of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D); and Dacian Cioloș of Macron’s liberal Renew Europe — about attending the Friday breakfast together with some of the most influential EU national leaders who were in Brussels for a summit.

But according to several officials with knowledge of the situation, the plan quickly unraveled, as the group leaders first scrambled to rearrange their schedules, then realized that Macron and von der Leyen were putting them in an impossible position.

How the breakfast unraveled

With Macron still to name a new nominee, officials said that meeting with him would expose them to criticism of colluding in advance to support the French candidate, rather than exercising Parliament’s independent oversight in the confirmation process.

After Macron said he had gotten assurance from von der Leyen of support for Goulard, García and Weber publicly denied it.

With the group leaders unwilling to attend such a meeting, Macron and von der Leyen met instead with heads of state and government representing the main pro-EU political families: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, and Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, all of the EPP; Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa of the S&D; and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel for Renew Europe.

Explaining the session to reporters, Macron said it was intended to put a stop to what he viewed as out-of-control partisan feuding in Parliament that led to the rejection of his nominee.

“This morning I held a working breakfast with Angela Merkel, Ursula von der Leyen and representatives of the three big political families to discuss the entry into office of the new Commission, its strategic agenda and the work of the European Parliament,” Macron said.

He said it was “indispensable” to have cooperation in the Council and the Parliament among leaders of the main pro-EU groups. “We need to build a real pact of responsibility, majority and ambition together.”

There was only one problem: No one from Parliament was at the breakfast — not even Parliament President David Sassoli.

That sent yet another signal that Macron and von der Leyen, who tweeted a photo of the breakfast saying she looks forward to meeting the leaders of the parliamentary groups next week (she’s scheduled to have dinner with them on Monday in Strasbourg), still don’t quite grasp the balance of institutional power in Brussels — in which the Parliament most assuredly does not see itself as taking orders either from the Commission or Council.

In a sign of the perils of making political invitations in Brussels, von der Leyen was also slammed by an MEP from the smaller left-wing group. “Starting your mandate with such an understanding of democracy won’t help you build some trust,” tweeted French MEP Manon Aubry.

Macron, at his post-summit news conference, attributed the defeat of Goulard to the earlier rejection by Parliament of the Hungarian nominee, a conservative, and the Romanian nominee, a Socialist.

Macron said he believes the three groups had undertaken a process of mutual immolation, describing them as akin to a self-cleaning oven that burns up everything inside. “It worked,” he said. “There are three fewer commissioners. Each side has cut a head off. It’s no more or less than that.”

The French president continued: “This dynamic of pyrolysis doesn’t make it possible to have a strong Commission. It may not even make it possible to get a majority for this Commission at all. For sure, it won’t make it possible to have an ambitious program. So we need to calm down. It’s a real dysfunction. I think it’s a political crisis.”

Many officials in Brussels believe that if there is a crisis it was created by Macron and his overreaction to the defeat of the French nominee. Goulard had faced multiple investigations into allegations of misuse of official funds during her time as a member of the European Parliament, and also tough questions about a high-paid consulting job with a think tank for which she did very little work. Although Goulard denied wrongdoing, she struggled during two confirmation hearings to answer questions about the allegations, which had led her to resign as defense minister of France after just one month in the job.

Officials in Brussels said that Macron — instead of accepting that he had put forward a flawed nominee and swiftly picking a replacement — had created a firestorm by lashing out at von der Leyen and declaring an interinstitutional crisis where none appeared to exist. While he insisted that he had offered up three different names and von der Leyen had preferred Goulard, the fact that he has still not named a replacement has led officials to doubt Macron ever had other candidates in mind.

Macron continued to hype up the drama on Friday.

“What happened just cannot go on,” he said. “That’s why I wanted the meeting this morning.”

New kid on the block

Officials said that von der Leyen’s initial move to include the leaders of the parliamentary groups highlighted that she remains a newbie in EU politics. The Commission president-elect has kept a low profile during the transition, and seems to be struggling to find her footing — especially in determining whom she can trust among her vice presidents and commissioners as well as in the 30,000-strong EU civil service.

The breakfast brought together the heads of state and government who had led the effort to select the new EU leadership. And officials said that would have created yet another layer of awkward tension given that they were responsible for selecting von der Leyen, a former German defense minister and ally of Merkel, for the Commission presidency over Weber, who had been the EPP’s official candidate for the post.

Some MEPs have speculated that conservatives in Parliament voted against Goulard as a way of exacting revenge against Macron and Merkel for the selection of von der Leyen.

The breakfast overshadowed von der Leyen’s debut at the European Council, where she made a presentation to the assembled leaders about her political program and her intention to run a “geopolitical Commission.”

With the leaders having discussed the situation in Turkey and Syria on Thursday night, von der Leyen stressed her plans to enhance the EU’s defense capabilities, with an emphasis on boosting the EU’s defense industry and improving coordination on procurement as well as research and development. Recognizing the importance of NATO, von der Leyen said that nonetheless “the EU needs to have its own stance on defense,” according to one person who heard her remarks.

One official who saw her presentation said “she was impressive, extremely well-prepared.” She did not read from her notes, and then answered comfortably when leaders peppered her with questions and comments, the official said.

One EU diplomat said leaders also recognized that von der Leyen is still adjusting to her new role, as well as to the curious culture of the Brussels bubble, and that she seemed not yet entirely sure whom she could trust.

Jacopo Barigazzi, Rym Momtaz and Paul Taylor contributed reporting. 

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