Top jobs on the line in Europe's 'Game of Thrones'
EU leaders embarked on the delicate task of filling key European posts on Thursday, launching a diplomatic "Game of Thrones" sure to be filled with feuds, betrayals and last-minute plot twists.
The leaders came to discuss the future of Europe in the Romanian city of Sibiu, a medieval walled city surrounded by snow-capped mountains, once the stomping ground of Vlad the Impaler.
First intended as a summit to discuss the future of Europe after Brexit, the meeting instead turned to filling top EU jobs, including that of the head of the European Commission.
"This summit has become the kick-off of the European political season. Those who want to get into the ring or who have a clear message to send can do so," said an EU diplomat.
Currently held by former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the commission serves a five-year term as Europe's chief legislator, trade negotiator and regulation supremo.
It's a coveted job and lands as other plum EU posts open, with the leadership of the European Central Bank also up for grabs.
Also included is the post of president of the EU Council - now held by former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk - and that of the EU's diplomatic chief, now Italy's Federica Mogherini.
The EU's 27 leaders - without the UK, under assumption that Brexit still happens - are divided over how much the result of this month's EU elections should matter when filling the jobs.
Juncker's job is the key one, with parliament eager to have a determining role after the May 23-26 parliamentary vote.
Defying the vote result by nominating leaders who did not campaign "would not strengthen confidence in the European Union", warned Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
Political groups in the European Parliament have chosen so-called "spitzenkandidate" (spearhead candidates) to head their campaigns and many want the head of the biggest faction that emerges to get the top job.
"I don't think this is the right way," French president Emmanuel Macron, the most important and outspoken of the critics of the spitzenkandidate process said after the talks.
"Our citizens have had enough of pre-cooked meals," Macron added, in a stinging rebuke to the dealmakers of the Brussels bubble.
Leading the candidates' charge is MEP Manfred Weber of the centre-right European People's Party, which includes German chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.
"If the EPP wins the election, we have a right to ask for leadership," said Weber.
Right-of-centre leaders have quietly backed the little-known Bavarian conservative, though their loyalty will meet a true test after the vote results come in later in May.
With rivals sensing weakness, Brussels is rife with rumours about supposed plan-Bs to circumvent Weber or his socialist counterpart, commission vice-president Frans Timmermans.
Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is often mentioned, as is European Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager.
According to the EU Treaty, anything is possible. Member state leaders must agree on a candidate - after appropriate consultations - and only afterwards will he or she be approved by the incoming parliament.
A summit will be held on May 28 to sort out the matter, just two days after the European elections.
"This process will follow the rules set down in the treaty. It must respect balances as well, such as geography, demography, gender," Tusk said after the talks. "This is my intention but as you know there are only five posts and many more conditions and criteria," he added.
Tusk, who will steer the process, said he wanted the job filled by another EU summit in June and would force through a knife-edge vote of national leaders if necessary. "I will not wait three months looking for consensus," he said.