EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nicosia, Cyprus May 20, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Brussels: The European Union may reward its Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with the top job of leading the European Commission as momentum is building behind the Frenchman’s informal candidacy ahead of a summit in Brussels to negotiate who will head the bloc’s main institutions.

France is pushing its candidate to head the EU’s executive arm and has Spain and Ireland in its corner. Key eastern European countries are set to signal they could back Barnier as long as they get something in return, such as the EU’s foreign policy chief, officials familiar with their position said.

The horse-trading for the top EU jobs has kicked off with the European Parliament elections over. The other prize position is the European Central Bank (ECB) presidency. France and Germany, Europe’s two biggest economies, have traditionally had substantial leverage over the EU roles and Macron’s opening move would enhance Germany’s claim to the ECB.

But the challenge is that Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann is a non-starter for southern leaders for his long-held hawkish views, opposition to many of Mario Draghi’s unconventional measures and repeatedly calling for the start of a cycle of higher interest rates.

For now, the focus of this summit seems to be on the commission job. Paris squarely opposes the bid of Manfred Weber, the official candidate of the bloc’s centre-right parties for the role at the EU’s executive arm, according to an official asking not to be named, in line with policy.

Barnier is widely appreciated among the bloc’s leaders, including Ireland, for negotiating a deal for the orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, which is seen as safeguarding the bloc’s interests. The deal has been repeatedly rejected by British lawmakers.

An EU diplomat said that no one will be against Barnier as long as they get what they want in the bargaining process. On the contrary, Weber’s bid is facing headwinds, as governments including Greece, Hungary and France oppose it.

Macron in the meantime, is already trying to build consensus around his co-national. Last week he met with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, he dined with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez last night, and today will lunch in Brussels with those same two Iberian leaders as well as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Belgium’s Charles Michel.

Sanchez and Macron agreed Monday night to work together to push for social democrats and liberals to be included among the EU’s senior officials, Spanish officials said.

Barnier has led the EU’s negotiations with Britain over Brexit since 2016. He has also been the EU Commissioner for the internal market, as well as holding several cabinet positions in France. He officially belongs to the EPP group, though he has close ties to Macron who is trying to set up a new centrist group in the EU parliament.