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Eye on France: Europe divided on top jobs

The heart of the matter: the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
The heart of the matter: the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

As the European heads of state continue their marathon summit in search of a new Commission President, the Paris papers look at the blockage in Brussels and the stalemate in Strasbourg.


Europe is in trouble. Again.

“Old Continent ravaged by new divisions”, would be one way of translating the main headline in business paper Les Echos.

Le Figaro’s editorial looks grimly at what the right-wing daily calls “The faces of disunity”.

Libération goes for the dramatic but tragically accurate “Failure at the end of the night”.

The central problem is agreeing about who is going to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission.

Despite 22 hours of horse-trading which saw Sunday’s heads-of-state meeting drag into the early hours of Monday, the 28 had to start all over again earlier today.

“This is sending a very bad message about Europe,” said an angry Emmanuel Macron.

We should be used to it by now.

There was a similar circus in 1995, 2004 and 2014. As Libé points out, the more jobs there are, the more member countries, the more complicated the equation becomes.

The Franco-German Macron Merkel tandem thought they had it all ironed out. The pair met at the G20 gab-fest in Osaka and agreed that the Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans was the best compromise candidate.

Merkel had been hoping to see her conservative countryman Manfred Weber shunted into place.

But the big two forgot the impact of the east European bloc (Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) none of whose members appreciate Timmermans for his repeated reminders about the rule of law and the dangers of far-right thinking. He has, up to now, been the Commission vice-president, with special responsibility for law.

Le Figaro says the latest drama is a symptom of the end of the reign of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the unofficial Queen of Europe. And also a sign that the Berlin-Paris axis is no longer the continental spinal column.

Caught between a rock and a hard place

The right-wing paper is sure that, with China buying up influence everywhere thanks to the Belt & Road Initiative, and the United States digging in behind the walls of Trumpian unilateralism, the European Union needs to get its act together.

The union is now paralysed and dysfunctional, says Le Figaro, weakened by its own internal divisions.

National politics have once again taken precedence over the common interest.

In a parallel drama, there was a touch of Monty Python about this morning’s inaugural session of the new European parliament in Strasbourg. The assembled Eurodeputies were asked to stand for the European anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. They did. But the 29 UK representatives of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party immediately turned their backs on the rest of the assembly.

The departing Brits were luckier than the three Catalan independence deputies, who were prevented from attending the session by the government in Madrid. One of them, Oriol Junqueras, is in jail; the other two are living in exile, the subjects of Spanish arrest warrants, and so could not return home to be sworn in.

And it’s against that background of discord and division that the elected deputies must themselves choose a parliamentary president.

Worse, warns Le Figaro, when you start counting heads, even if pro-European deputies easily outnumber their skeptical neighbours, the fact remains that the conservative European Popular Party and the social democrats no longer have the voting weight they need to steamroll legislation through the continental assembly.

Liberal and Green MEPs have promised to use the new balance of power to advance their political agenda.

But the far right, spearheaded by Italy’s Lega and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, will be doing the same sort of thing at the other end of the spectrum.

We ain't seen nothin' yet.

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