Scholz confirms EU top jobs deal with von der Leyen as Commission chief

By Miranda Murray and Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) -German Chancellor Olaf Scholz confirmed on Wednesday that the European Parliament's three main centrist groups would back Ursula von der Leyen for a second term as Commission president, in a deal Italy's prime minister said ignored voters' wishes.

In a speech to the German parliament assessing the fallout from this month's European elections, Scholz said the groups had also agreed Portugal's ex-premier Antonio Costa should be chair of meetings of EU national leaders and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas should be the bloc's new foreign policy chief.

The three groups combined have a majority in the European Parliament (EP), Scholz noted, adding he hoped that EU leaders meeting on Thursday would quickly sign off on the arrangement.

"We cannot afford to drag our feet in these difficult times," he said, adding that the EP vote had shown how multiple crises, from the coronavirus pandemic to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the war in the Middle East, had shattered trust in the European Union and national governments.

Populist parties, which performed strongly in the elections, are exploiting citizens' concerns for their own ends, he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni criticised the plan to share out the top EU jobs among the three main groups, saying they ignored the success of right-wing parties in the EP elections.

"It does not seem to me that a willingness to take into account what the citizens have said at the ballot box has emerged so far," Meloni told lawmakers.

Her conservative Brothers of Italy party won the most votes in Italy and is the leading force in the European Conservatives and Reformists Party (ECR) in the EP.

Meloni said her ECR group, which has overtaken the liberals in the EU assembly, deserved a key say in the appointments.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in second in the EP election in Germany, ahead of all three parties in Scholz's fractious three-way coalition.

The AfD was expelled from the other far-right group in the European assembly, Identity and Democracy (ID), last month after remarks by its lead candidate that the Nazis' Waffen SS were "not all criminals".

TURNING POINT

Scholz said the EP election result marked a turning point: "We must ensure that confidence grows again in Germany and Europe, and in many countries around the world."

That meant providing actual solutions rather than simply railing against problems like the populists, he said, for example on irregular migration.

The chancellor cited a drop in asylum requests in the first few months of the year as well as an increase in deportations, which he put down to a tightening of German migration policy.

Earlier on Wednesday, the government agreed a draft law to make it easier to deport people for praising or promoting "terrorist crimes".

Scholz long downplayed the strength of the AfD. But since it surged to second place in nationwide polls last year and sustained that position, he has started to address it publicly head-on. The AfD is on track to come first in three state elections in the formerly Communist-run eastern Germany in September.

At their summit on Thursday, EU leaders will discuss Europe's priorities for the coming years, Scholz said. These included security, competitiveness and economic growth, and reforms to make the bloc more effective.

(Reporting by Miranda Murray and Sarah MarshEditing by Gareth Jones)