EU leaders on Tuesday nominated German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the next European Commission president, capping almost 48 hours of frenzied negotiations with a surprise pick for the bloc’s top job.
A marathon summit in Brussels, which included an all-night session from Sunday into Monday, also selected caretaker Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to lead the European Council, the body that brings together the EU’s national leaders.
The leaders nominated Christine Lagarde, the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund, as president of the European Central Bank, to succeed Mario Draghi. They also picked Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell to be high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. All the appointments are scheduled to take effect later this year.
Von der Leyen, who would be the first woman to lead the Commission, is a 60-year-old Christian Democrat and close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But in a curious twist at the conclusion of the summit, Merkel abstained from the decision to nominate von der Leyen because her Social Democrat coalition partners opposed the planned EU leadership slate.
Although she received broad backing from EU leaders, von der Leyen now faces a potentially fierce fight in the European Parliament to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker, whose five-year term as Commission chief ends on October 31. Her nomination needs an absolute majority of the chamber’s 751 members to be ratified.
In choosing von der Leyen, the mother of seven and a member of Merkel’s Cabinet since the chancellor took office in 2005, the leaders abandoned the Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” process, by which the Council is expected to select from among the nominees of the major EU political families — and which has strong support in the European Parliament. The leaders also broke with the quarter-century-old tradition of choosing a former head of state or government for the EU’s top job.
European Council President Donald Tusk, in announcing the decisions at a news conference, argued the leaders had moved more swiftly than five years ago, when it took three months to settle on a leadership package. And he boasted of the near-unanimity of the outcome compared to the no-votes by the U.K. and Hungary in 2014.
“Nobody was against,” Tusk said. “Even if Germany abstained on the Commission president due to some issues in the government coalition, personally Chancellor Merkel supported the whole package. First and foremost, we have chosen two women and two men for the four key positions. A perfect gender balance. I am really happy about it. After all, Europe is a woman. I think that it was worth waiting for such an outcome.”
But for the rest of the world, the outcome was unlikely to send a particularly loud or impressive message about the EU or the European Continent.
Of the four proposed leaders, only Lagarde has a high international profile — and only among a slice of diplomatic and financial insiders. And the slate — perhaps intentionally — seems likely to only reinforce the image of Brussels as a place of solid but unexciting public servants, grinding away at complex regulation.
The idea of any of the new leaders going toe-to-toe with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Chinese President Xi Jinping will take a bit of getting used to for the public, and probably for the leaders as well.
Von der Leyen was born in Brussels, spent most of her childhood in the EU capital, where her father worked in the Commission, and speaks French and English fluently — a major advantage. But she has never worked in EU affairs, and has been dogged by allegations of misspending and mismanagement at the German defense ministry, some of which remain the subject of an ongoing investigation.
If her nomination fails, the Council will have to start over and submit a new name to Parliament within a month.
Aside from questions about von der Leyen’s credentials, her nomination and the overall package face a number of other hurdles in Parliament.
Most immediately, the leaders made clear on Tuesday that they envisioned former Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev becoming president of the European Parliament, despite no indication that he will have sufficient support. A rejection of Stanishev, which could come in a vote as early as Wednesday, could demolish the entire proposal, in part because no other Eastern European official was chosen for a top job.
“The next 24 hours are crucial,” an EU diplomat said. “If Stanishev is rejected, the whole geographical balance is at risk.”
The rushed and unexpected outcome — von der Leyen had not been strongly linked with the Commission job in recent days — and the demise of the lead candidate process, left many EU politicians, officials and diplomats seething that the Council had made a huge mistake. Some argued the leaders had betrayed EU voters by not picking a lead candidate from the European Parliament election — particularly after turnout surged above 50 percent for the first time in 25 years.
“This backroom stitch-up after days of talks is grotesque,” said Ska Keller, a German MEP and co-leader of the Greens in the European Parliament. “It satisfies no one but party power games. After such a high turnout in the European elections and a real mandate for change, this is not what European citizens deserve.
“We don’t need the smallest common denominator satisfying personal interest and party politics,” Keller said. “We need a dynamic for political change in Europe and this is not offered by this package.”
In making appointments to top positions, the EU treaties require leaders to seek balance based on political affiliation, as well as geography and demography — in other words between small and large countries, and between east and west, north and south. Tusk and other leaders this year also put a high priority on increasing the number of women in top EU jobs, and in the end that consideration seemed to take precedence over numerous other factors.
Von der Leyen, Michel, Borrell and Lagarde are all from Western Europe. And while the EU election result delivered a Parliament that is more diverse than ever — with the traditional center-right and center-left parties together losing seats amid a surge by liberals, Greens and populists — the package strongly favored the old-guard parties, providing another reason for a potential revolt among MEPs.
Weber makes way
Von der Leyen’s nomination would keep the Commission presidency in the hands of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which has long dominated EU politics, and it was made possible only after other leaders made clear to Merkel that they would not support the EPP lead candidate, German MEP Manfred Weber.
Germany’s Social Democratic Party, which is Merkel’s governing partner in Berlin, was apparently so dismayed by the selection of von der Leyen — and particularly by the torpedoing of the European socialists’ lead candidate, former Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans — that the chancellor was forced to abstain from the vote on Commission president.
That abstention added an element of absurdity to the proceedings given that the leaders’ negotiations for weeks were stuck on the insistence of the EPP and Merkel that the conservatives retain the Commission presidency and that the job go to Weber, who has not held high-level executive office.
While the EPP still controls the largest number of seats in Parliament — a point cited repeatedly by Weber’s supporters — it is still a narrow plurality, and the party is now a minority in what is expected to become the new pro-EU coalition in Parliament, including the socialists, liberals and the Greens.
Even after the decision, Merkel continued to contribute to the odd display of Germany grumbling about a result that virtually everyone else viewed as of great benefit to Berlin.
Before leaving the Council, she told reporters that she was open to changes in the EU’s voting system, potentially including transnational candidate lists in order to “avoid such an unfortunate situation in the future.”
And she complained about how Weber had been treated. “One lead candidate,” Merkel said in a clear reference to Weber “was from the beginning portrayed as not suitable.” This, she added, “cannot happen again.”
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Macron, in his own closing remarks, put an exceedingly positive spin on the outcome, declaring it a “positive and consensual conclusion” and proclaiming it serves “not to divide Europe — politically, or geographically” — even though the lack of Eastern Europeans was plain to see.
“All countries, whether from Europe’s east, north or south voted for this deal,” Macron declared.
Indeed, some Eastern European leaders seemed to endorse the deal not out of enthusiasm for the successful candidates but because they wanted to ensure the defeat of those they opposed. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in particular, made clear that he viewed his country, and the Visegrad Group of Central European nations, as big winners for having stopped Timmermans and Weber. (The former has criticized the state of the rule of law in Hungary while Weber, having long sought to cultivate good relations with Orbán, recently supported the suspension of his Fidesz party from the EPP.)
“We took up a position in important, substantive questions about these personnel decisions,” Orbán said in a statement. “We held that line as we said we would.”
Tusk said EU leaders expected Timmermans, and the liberal lead candidate, Margrethe Vestager, who is currently serving as competition commissioner, to become the highest ranking vice presidents in the new Commission. But that seemed of little consolation to proponents of the lead candidate process, who said the Council had undermined democracy by choosing a Commission president who did not campaign at all for the job.
Nearly all of the Council’s choices also have some element of controversy surrounding them.
In addition to the allegations of ministry misspending in Germany, von der Leyen will likely face questions about the state of Germany’s military, which has come under severe criticism.
Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister, will almost certainly face questions about Spain’s refusal to recognize Kosovo, reflecting a position that Madrid has taken against separatist movements because of the Catalonia issue. Borrell has been an outspoken critic of the Catalan separatist movement, but as the high representative for foreign affairs, he would be in charge of policy toward the Balkans, including an EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo aimed at normalizing relations.
Michel, the choice for Council president, seems well-liked by his peers but is currently in a caretaker position after his governing coalition collapsed.
Lagarde was convicted by a court in France in 2016 for negligence over the misuse of public funds when she was finance minister nearly a decade earlier. The court did not impose a fine or a sentence.