By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The incoming head of the EU executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, was in urgent talks with Slovenia's prime minister on Thursday to find a replacement for the Slovenian who quit his team after a humiliating rejection in the European Parliament.
Party political wrangling, in both Ljubljana and Brussels, was holding up a new nomination from Slovenia for its seat on the 28-member European Commission following Alenka Bratusek's decision to withdraw as vice president-designate for energy.
Aides to Juncker said the process could disrupt a timetable by which the new executive is due to take office on Nov. 1. At a single plenary vote scheduled for Oct. 22, parliament must approve the whole Commission in order for it to take over.
"There is a risk that if these political discussions do not come to an end soon then the whole calendar will be extended," Juncker's spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news conference.
EU and national party haggling played a role in Bratusek's downfall and continue to dog efforts to name a substitute, even as Juncker welcomed the patching up of a broad left-right coalition in parliament that saw the remainder of his 27 choices approved in a series of committee votes late on Wednesday.
Bratusek had always appeared vulnerable. As a former prime minister and a woman, she fitted a profile Juncker had favoured for a team he wants to focus on regaining the trust of voters who turned massively toward anti-EU parties at elections in May.
But having nominated herself while serving out her term as a caretaker following an election defeat, Bratusek lacked support from the new government in Ljubljana. And as a centrist, she had risked being caught in the crossfire between the two biggest groups in the EU legislature, the centre-right and centre-left.
A stumbling performance during her confirmation hearing before a parliamentary committee on Monday sealed her fate. In a non-binding committee ballot on Wednesday, lawmakers voted by an overwhelming 113-12 to ask Juncker not to give her a job.
PUSH FOR SUBSTITUTE
The centre-left S&D group in parliament, backed by Juncker's centre-right EPP, called on the Slovenian government, now led by Bratusek's centre-left nemesis Miro Cerar, to nominate an S&D member of the European Parliament, Tanja Fajon, in her place.
Gianni Pittella, the parliamentary leader of the S&D, said Fajon's experience of EU institutions would give her the best chance of successfully passing a confirmation hearing in the less than two weeks left before the Commission goes to a vote.
But Cerar insisted he would not be rushed and political sources in Ljubljana said his coalition cabinet was divided.
Expressing "surprise" at Pittella's "ultimatum", Cerar's government said in a statement that it would send the name of its new candidate to Brussels "as soon as possible".
In the EU legislature, the centrist ALDE group to which Bratusek belongs slammed what one lawmaker called "harassment".
One alternative to Fajon, cited by Slovenian sources, is outgoing EU environment commissioner Janez Potocnik, a centrist - though his nomination would force Juncker to miss a target of having nine women on his team. The names of two serving Slovenian ministers, Karl Erjavec and Violeta Bulc, were also circulating.
Throughout Wednesday evening in Brussels, Juncker's EPP and the S&D, the next-biggest party, effectively traded "hostages" they had taken from each other over the past week, agreeing to back each other's candidates after threats to vote them down.
Disputes began when the S&D helped block the approval of a Spanish conservative nominated to run a combined energy and climate change portfolio. That move had brought a threat from the EPP to prevent Socialist Pierre Moscovici, a former French finance minister, from becoming economics commissioner.
That in turn put the endorsement of other center-right figures in jeopardy, including Britain's Jonathan Hill as financial services commissioner.
As the pieces fell into place of a left-right bargain and all Juncker's remaining nominees were approved, the Greens and other smaller parties, including some of the phalanx of anti-EU populists who entered parliament at elections in May, were left fuming at "back-room deals" cooked up by the major blocs.
Leaders of the major parties, which saw their share of votes slide in the face of a surge of anti-EU sentiment in May, hailed the progress toward a new executive as a mark of parliament's commitment to working with Juncker on his goals of reviving economic growth in order to regain public trust in the EU.
"TIME TO WORK"
Manfred Weber, the German who leads the centre-right EPP in parliament, tweeted that it was "time to work, not play games".
"Today’s votes ... demonstrate our will, and that of our partners, to form a stable and democratic majority in the European Parliament able to get the EU to work in the interest of Europe's citizens," Weber said in a statement.
Pittella dismissed talk of the socialists honouring a "non-aggression pact" with Juncker and the conservatives but said "tough negotiations" with Juncker had produced an agreement on a Commission that the center-left could support.
In particular, he said, Frans Timmermans, the centre-left former Dutch foreign minister who will be Juncker's first vice president and right-hand man, would ensure "sustainable development" is fostered across the Commission - a way to swallow Arias Canete securing the energy and climate brief.
Pittella also said Hungary's Tibor Navracsics would have his portfolio revised to win parliamentary approval.
A former justice minister in a Budapest government accused by EU critics of trampling on civil rights, Navracsics was endorsed as a commissioner by a committee on Monday but rejected for a role including education, culture, youth and citizenship.
That last part - broadly speaking human rights - would be given to another commissioner. A further adjustment to Juncker's plan would see oversight of medicines and medical devices restored, at least in part, to the health directorate, the S&D said. The incoming president had proposed to have the industry directorate take over. Responsibility would now be shared.
An EU official said Juncker had put such proposals in the negotiating process, though there would only be a formal change in commissioner's portfolios once the process was complete.
Other nominees confirmed in their roles on Wednesday were Finland's Jyrki Katainen, vice president for jobs and growth, and Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis, vice president for the euro.
Both former prime ministers, seen as fiscal hawks close to conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel, they will jointly oversee the work of Moscovici. The Frenchman struggled to convince some lawmakers that he can be trusted to impose budget discipline on his own former colleagues in Paris.
(Additional reporting by Marja Novak in Ljubljana and Barbara Lewis in Brussels)