BRUSSELS: European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker chided French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday for failing to form clear Europe-wide party political alliances, as manoeuvring warms up over next year's EU parliament elections.
Ahead of a summit of European Union leaders on Feb. 23 to debate how, among other things, to choose Juncker's successor, the European Commission set out its recommendations, some of which are at odds with the views of powerful governments.
These include renewed support for the way in which Juncker himself came to head the Commission in 2014. Known as the 'Spitzenkandidat' system, it calls for the lead candidate of the pan-EU party which wins elections to the European Parliament to be appointed as head of the Commission, the EU's executive.
Macron has been a vocal critic of the idea, arguing that it allows pan-EU parties, little known to voters, to usurp a power traditionally exercised by elected national leaders in the European Council.
Juncker's Commission, along with the European Parliament, want to retain the mechanism, new in 2014, arguing that it is more democratic.
Asked at a news conference why he was persisting in the face of opposition, Juncker said he was still debating the issue with Macron and noted that Parliament had vowed to use its power to block any Council nominee for the Commission if leaders fail to choose the winning lead candidate from the May 2019 election.
He then made a dig at Macron's equivocation to commit his own centrist party - Republic on the Move, founded last year to secure his election - to any of the existing pan-European groups in the EU parliament.
"All of those running for the European Parliament have to declare well before the European elections to what group they would belong in case they are elected," Juncker said, adding that voters could shun his party if it fails to do so.
Macron has resisted joining the existing centrist group in Brussels and has suggested he might prefer to promote new, pro-EU allies of his party in other states.
Macron last week criticised the European Parliament for its insistence on the 'Spitzenkandidat' system. A majority led by the centre-right in the chamber rejected a proposal backed by Macron for some of the seats being abandoned by Britain - which leaves the EU next year - to be converted into "transnational lists", running in every country.
Juncker and the Commission voiced support for the idea of transnational lists. But Juncker, echoing a view held by some of Macron's Council colleagues, also said the idea would need more preparation, including changes in national laws, and so would not be practicable in time for next year's voting.
In a concession to hostility among national leaders on the 'Spitzenkandidat' idea, Juncker acknowledged it could not be "automatic" that the Council follow the result of the election. In 2014, Juncker's list won less than 30 percent of the vote and he faced sizeable opposition to his confirmation by Parliament.
Reflecting concerns, in the wake of Britain's Brexit vote and the rise of anti-EU parties across the continent, about a perceived lack of democratic legitimacy in the Union, leaders will grapple next week with ways to stimulate public support.
Debates remain marked by a perennial tension between those who see legitimacy springing from elected national governments negotiating with each other in the Council and those pushing to forge more of a pan-European identity and strengthen the "federal" institutions of the Parliament and the Commission.
Juncker, who dismissed as "nonsense" a charge by British Brexit campaign leader Boris Johnson on Wednesday that the EU was forging a "European super-state", urged the EU party groups - heterogeneous clusters of national parties which gain clout by sitting together in Brussels - to raise their profiles by choosing lead candidates through primaries well ahead of time.
He also renewed his proposal for his own job and that of the Council president, who chairs EU summits, to be merged - though he acknowledged that is not popular and will not happen soon.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)