An attempt to reach agreement on the next President of the European Commission has run into difficulty this evening after the largest group in the European Parliament rejected a proposal to support Socialist candidate Frans Timmermans.
The European People's Party - to which German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and Fine Gael belong - objected strongly to Mr Timmermans being put forward as an agreed candidate.
The EPP’s own candidate, German MEP Manfred Weber, was rejected by the last EU Council summit on 20 June.
The proposal to make Mr Timmermans a compromise candidate arose at the recent G20 meeting in Osaka following meetings of the German, French, Dutch and Spanish leaders.
However, at a meeting of the EPP national leaders before tonight’s European Council summit, the proposal was strongly rejected.
Speaking to the media on his way into the summit, the Taoiseach outlined the objections.
"As EPP we haven’t agreed to the package that was agreed in Osaka. From the EPP’s point of view, the vast majority of EPP prime ministers don’t believe that we should give up the presidency of the Commission quite so easily without a fight.
"And secondly a lot of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe are very much opposed to the proposal that Timmermans be President of the Council (sic) largely because they believe it will further divisions between east and west. So I think a long night and I don’t think it’s certain by any means that we’ll have a solution this evening."
Asked if Manfred Weber, the EPP candidate rejected by the European Council on 20 June, was still a contender, the Taoiseach said he "absolutely" was.
The Czech Prime Minister told reporters in Brussels that he believed Mr Timmermans was "not the right one to unite Europe".
"In the past, we had the feeling he has not been too positive to our region, we need some geographical balance," said Andrej Babis.
Mr Babis also said that gender balance should be a consideration.
Tonight, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, whose party is suspended from the EPP, also wrote to the group's president to outline his objections to support being withdrawn from Manfred Weber.
Mr Orban said supporting Mr Timmermans would be "a historic mistake" and "humiliating".
Mr Timmermans is the Commissioner with responsibility for the Rule of Law and has been critical of Mr Orban in the past.
The start of discussions at the European Council working dinner was delayed by three hours. The strength of the objections to Mr Timmermans have cast doubt over whether an agreement can be reached at all before the new European Parliament convenes on Tuesday.
Government leaders had hoped to be able to put the name of an agreed nominee for Commission President to the European Parliament next week.
No easy matter: Choosing a European Commission President
The 28 leaders are discussing the matter at a working dinner. Journalists and officials have already been advised that a briefing on the conclusions may not happen until after tomorrow morning.
Prior to May's European Parliament elections, it had been expected that the selection would be made based on the Spitzenkandidaten system.
This involved groups in the Parliament nominating a lead candidate (Spitzenkandidat is the German for lead candidate).
The party or bloc with the largest number of seats would seek approval from the heads of EU states meeting as the European Council and then the person would be ratified by the Parliament.
The largest parliamentary group is the European People's Party (EPP), of which Fine Gael and Angela Merkel’s CDU are members.
The group’s nominated candidate was German MEP Manfred Weber, but after the elections, French President Emanuel Macron objected to Weber on the basis of his lack of executive experience.
President Macron had consistently objected to the Spitzenkandidat system.
Both the EPP and S&D groups lost seats in the last elections and no longer enjoy a combined majority in Parliament. As a result, compromise with other parties is necessary in filling the top jobs.
Compromises are also required between the heads of governments at the European Council who are a mix of EPP, Social Democrats and Liberals.
Geographic, national, gender and political considerations all have to be taken into account too, so the European Council failed to agree on a name to put to the Parliament at the last time of asking on 20 June.
President of the Council Donald Tusk is determined to get agreement at tonight’s meeting, even if it has to be an all-nighter.
The name that keeps coming up as a compromise candidate is that of Frans Timmermans.
Mr Timmermans is the Social Democrat Spitzenkandidat nominated by the Socialists and Democrats European Parliament group.
He is the First Vice President of the Commission already with responsibility for Rule of Law, among other things.
Mr Timmermans is also a former Dutch Foreign Minister and speaks a number of languages fluently, including Russian.
After European heads of government met on the fringes of the recent G20 Summit in Osaka, Fran Timmermans's name was widely reported in the German media and elsewhere, perhaps indicating that Chancellor Merkel could back him in place of Weber.
Interestingly, Mrs Merkel did mention that either Mr Weber or Mr Timmermans would be good candidates.
The Spitzenkandidat of the Liberal Renew Europe Group (formerly ALDE), of which President Macron's Republique en Marche is a member, was Margarete Vestager.
The Danish Commissioner held the Competition portfolio and would be familiar to the Irish public for pursuing cases against Apple and other large tech companies for illegal state aid.
Her cause has not been helped by Emmanuel Macron declaring the Spitzenkandidat system dead, but her experience, tough reputation and gender are important enough considerations to keep her in the mix.
A decision tonight or tomorrow morning on the Commission President is important for a number of reasons.
There is time pressure as the European Parliament will meet on Tuesday and elect a president.
If the political affiliation of the Commission President is not known, there will be confusion over what is required from the traditional quid pro quo deal-making among the groups.
There are also a number of other big European jobs to be filled in the coming months.
Mario Draghi’s successor at the top of the European Central Bank has to be decided on, the High Representative on Foreign Affairs of the Commission and the Presidency of the Council itself.
While not all these jobs are directly in the gift of the Council, filling the Commission’s top job will clarify what criteria will be applied to filling the other positions.
A balance of old members and new members of the EU has to be struck, big countries versus small countries, political groupings and gender will play a role in every nomination.
Tonight’s long meeting should, in theory, make meetings about other appointments somewhat shorter.