The two favorites to become the next European Council president and foreign chief, Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, were appointed by EU heads of state and government in Brussels on Saturday (30 August).
At a press conference shortly after 8pm, the two received flowers and a standing ovation by journalists before they were introduced by current European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
?”You two have the full endorsement of the European Council and this was important to me,” the former prime minister of Belgium said. “They will work closely together to protect Europe’s interests and values.”
He added that Tusk is a veteran among EU leaders, having been prime minister since 2007, and highlighted his economic achievements, such as steering Poland through the global financial crisis without it falling into recession at any point.
Van Rompuy added that Tusk’s main priorities over the next two and a half years, the length of the Council presidency, would be to get Europe out of the financial crisis, deal with the situation in Ukraine, and keep Britain in the EU.
Tusk emphasized that he wants to be a unifying figure, stating “We need to prevent Europe from dividing into euro and non-euro camps. I wouldn’t have taken job if it involved (a) new institutional split.”
Tusk, who struggles with the English language, also reassured journalists that his future press conferences will be in English. “But nothing is ever good enough for you journalists. Not even my English! I will polish my English.”
Not just about experience
Van Rompuy said he was convinced that Mogherini would be a “steadfast mediator”. Mogherini, who spoke in both English and French, addressed her perceived inexperience, saying her political and civil society experience was also valuable. Asked about her relationship with Russia, Mogherini said she will strive to keep diplomatic channels open as the military option was not a viable solution to the crisis.
“I will devote all my energy to each and every member state and to each and every EU citizen,” Mogherini said, before praising the work done by her predecessor Britain’s Catherine Ashton in setting up the EU’s foreign service (EEAS).
Both Tusk and Mogherini were the front runners for the prestigious top jobs ahead of the last EU summit on 16 July. Back then, Mogherini was blocked by some Eastern European and Baltic countries, which complained she was too inexperienced for the job. Mogherini had spent just six months in her current job, and is thought by some to have been too soft on Russia during the ongoing territorial crisis in Ukraine.
Eastern European countries said that now was the time for their region to finally claim a top EU post, having been members of the Union for more than a decade. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to persuade Tusk to take on the job of European Council president, and balance Mogherini’s inexperience, the Polish prime minister declined. At the time, he said that the uncertain situation in Ukraine and within his own party ahead of next year’s general elections would make it difficult for him to step down.
However, shortly before the negotiations between EU leaders started Saturday afternoon, rumours in the press area of the Council circulated that Mogherini was already on a plane to Brussels. Meanwhile, the official Council broadcaster accidently caught Herman Van Rompuy confirming to the Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades that Tusk would be his successor.
About two hours later, Polish state TV broke the news, that Tusk and Mogherini would respectively replace Van Rompuy and Ashton.
Earlier this week, the Financial Times reported that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had lobbied heavily for Mogherini since the July summit, acknowledging that a “change of tone” towards Russia was needed.
Tusk was put in pole position after David Cameron’s spokesperson on Tuesday announced that the UK prime minister was backing Tusk. He was a candidate whose views on reforming the EU could balance out the federalist views of the new Commission President elect, Jean-Claude Juncker, according to the spokesperson.
Cameron had previously supported the unofficial candidacy of the social democrat Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. But EU centre-left leaders on Saturday morning, meeting in Paris, decided to back Mogherini as foreign chief, rather than push for a socialist Council president.
What will the socialists get?
The reason socialist leaders decided not to claim the Council top job, which they did at the 16 July summit, could be due to a clever strategy by Hollande, who wants his nominated Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, to get the responsibility for the EU’s economic and monetary affairs. Juncker, who has the task of matching portfolios to the nominated commissioners, previously stated in July at a meeting with MEPs from the European People’s Party, that the important economics portfolio could go to a socialist if the Council top job was not given to a socialist or social democrat.
EURACTIV asked a senior EU official whether Juncker had already come under pressure from socialists about giving them the prestigious portfolio. “The decision is solely up to Juncker,” the official said.
Juncker is expected to present the new commissioners and their portfolios on 9 or 10 September, the senior official said. Whether or not the Parliament will approve a Commission which looks to be less gender balanced than the last one, with only Mogherini getting one of the EU’s top jobs, remains to be seen. But the EU official said that EU member states are well-aware of the problem and “are moving” on the issue.