It was a week of high drama on the EU stage as European leaders haggled over the bloc’s top jobs. The final cast list puts Western heavyweights in leading roles with nary a bit part for aspiring players from Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

Early hopes that former Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, leader of the Party of European Socialists, might bag the role of president of the European Parliament were dashed when the job went to Italian MEP David-Maria Sassoli.

Slovak politician Maros Sefcovic and Bulgarian economic analyst Kristalina Georgieva, head of the World Bank, were left disappointed after being tipped for high-profile parts. Romania and Croatia had also sought a greater role for the Balkan region in the EU’s decision-making process.

The Visegrad Four countries of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia made their presence known during a marathon EU summit, helping to block Frans Timmermans, the Dutch socialist Spitzenkandidat, from becoming European Commission president.

The move essentially blew up the Spitzenkandidaten process in which the largest political grouping in the European Parliament chooses the Commission president and opened the door to frantic backroom horse-trading.

“In our unity, the Visegrad Four have again demonstrated our growing strength and influence over the direction of EU,” Tweeted Zoltan Kovacs, a Hungarian government spokesman. “After defeating Weber, the V4 prime ministers have toppled Timmermans as well.”

Budapest had helped derail the leadership bid of German politician Manfred Weber, chair of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest parliamentary group, after the EPP suspended Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party earlier this year.

This may come back to haunt Hungary as the EPP turns its attention to whether to expel Fidesz completely following the party’s suspension over rule-of-law concerns. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban appears keen to keep his EPP options open, writes Reporting Democracy correspondent Edit Inotai.

Timmermans, for his part, had led EU rebukes over the state of democratic freedoms and the rule of law in both Hungary and Poland. But if it was payback time, the last laugh may be on the Visegrad Four since Timmermans remains powerful as the European Commission’s deputy leader.

Meanwhile, Balkan hopes that a shakeup of EU leadership could help pave the way to future expansion of the bloc into southeastern Europe looked shaky after French President Emmanuel Macron, smarting from the Spitzenkandidat bust-up, declared the subject dead.

“I will refuse any kind of enlargement before a deep reform of our institutional functioning,” he said on Monday.

EU leaders now face a stark choice, writes Balkan Insight correspondent Srecko Latal: blame Balkan countries for failing to get their houses in order for EU accession and let them go their separate ways, or come up with a better plan for the fragile region.

The week’s political melodrama coincided with the end of Romania’s first presidency of the EU, which officials deemed a technical success but experts wrote off as a squandered opportunity to achieve anything of importance in a country whose record on judicial independence has come in for a hammering.

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Watching and Waiting: From Moldova to Iran, a state of limbo seems to be part of the guessing game of what happens next on big political issues, writes Milos Damnjanovic. Time to retreat to a Zen garden…

Also worth checking out…

Winners and losers: Politico rounds up who is up and who is down after this week’s race for the EU’s top jobs. Meanwhile, the Globalist takes stock of changing times in its guide to Europe’s winners and losers.

End or salvation? Is populism the scourge of liberal democracy or its salvation? That is a question posed in a Bloomberg podcast conversation with Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf.

The limits of transnational populism: Can you create an electorally successful left-wing populist movement beyond the nation state? Democratic Audit examines the success of the DiEM25 movement that stood in several countries in recent European Parliament elections.

Fear factor: What do Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, the Kaczynnski brothers and Matteo Salvini all have in common? Adrian Rocha dissects their brand of populism for Open Democracy.

East-West divide: The West’s “economic exploitation and moral arrogance” is fuelling right-wing populism in East-Central Europe, write Eszter Kovats and Katerina Smejkalova in the Journal of International Politics and Society. “We must now fight for the idea of Europe or see it perish beneath the waves of populism.” 

Love will set you free: The recent mayoral election in Istanbul offers the emotional template for defeating authoritarian leaders elsewhere in the world, writes Mustafa Akyol in Foreign Policy.

The case for always defending democracy: Recent events in Turkey, Ethiopia and the Czech Republic show that people still have power, writes Markos Kounalakis in Washington Monthly.


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