May 9, 2019 / 1:09 AM / 2 months ago

Damaged by Brexit, EU heads meet in Romania to chart bloc's next steps

SIBIU, Romania, May 9 (Reuters) - European Union leaders meet in Romania on Thursday to chart a way forward after the historic setback of Brexit and to have their first go at picking people to fill the bloc’s top jobs later this year.

The 27 national leaders - all except Britain - will meet on Europe Day in the town of Sibiu, which has German and Hungarian roots, 15 years after the EU’s eastern expansion finally tore down the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since World War Two.

While rich in symbolism, the summit will be short on substance, a reflection of how the EU has been engulfed by problems and divisions that may play out prominently ahead of the bloc-wide European Parliament elections on May 23-26.

Internally divided over issues ranging from migration to democratic standards and further integration, grappling with Brexit and a broader wave of populism, as well as a raft of external challenges, the bloc is also lagging behind on key challenges from climate to cyber security.

“The feeling of uncertainty can be overcome only if the EU acts jointly and European leadership sends a clear message it is committed to continue European integration,” Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis said before the summit.

Deepening euro zone cooperation, developing artificial intelligence capabilities and promoting a transition to more environmentally friendly policies are among more than a dozen “strategic agenda” points the leaders will discuss for 2019-2024, although no decisions will be taken.

More interesting could be the leaders’ informal discussions about appointing new names for the bloc’s most powerful roles at the helm of the European Council, which brings together the EU’s national leaders, the executive European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Central Bank and the joint diplomatic service.

All five posts are up for grabs later this year, and the outgoing European Parliament has already named its lead candidates for the Commission job, including a conservative German, Manfred Weber, and a socialist Dutchman, Frans Timmermans.

The bloc’s national leaders, however, want to control the process and promise no automatic endorsement.

Party politics, geographic representation, policy priorities as well as the candidates’ personal profiles all play a role in the choice, which took three summits and three summer months of horse-trading to conclude the previous time.

Hungary’s eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Monday said he would not support Weber.

While desirable for smooth future cooperation, no formal unanimity is required, and Orban - as well as Britain’s former prime minister David Cameron - both opposed the nomination of the current head of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, in 2014.

Other names in the hat include the bloc’s Brexit negotiator, Frenchman Michel Barnier, or Margrethe Vestager, Denmark’s current member of the European Commission, who slapped hefty fines on global tech giants Google and Apple.

Many in the EU expect another summit on May 28, two days after the European Parliament vote, to let the bloc’s national leaders and outgoing top officials discuss the results and agree on next steps, as they did five years ago after the last election. (Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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