EU leaders agree on top job picks but trouble already looms

German Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen speaking on 11 May 2019. She has won the European Council's nomination as new head of the European Commission. [EPA-EFE/HAYOUNG JEON]

The European Council finally agreed to rally behind German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen as their pick for the Commission presidency on Tuesday (2 July). But the deal sets up a potentially ugly encounter with the European Parliament, which might not approve her appointment.

Von der Leyen emerged as the unexpected victor of the top jobs race after marathon Council talks sank another proposed deal with a completely different set of names.

Leaders also agreed on their picks for Council president, European Central Bank chief and EU High-Representative, which will go, respectively, to Belgium’s Charles Michel, France’s Christine Lagarde and Spain’s Josep Borrell. All four speak French and English.

Outgoing Council President Donald Tusk told reporters that Germany had in fact abstained from the final vote, which was reportedly due to a revolt in the ruling coalition. Angela Merkel’s socialist partners refused to endorse von der Leyen’s candidacy.

The defence minister’s prospects face a baptism of fire in the Parliament as von der Leyen could struggle to secure the majority needed to confirm her as Commission boss. The Greens already rejected the Council deal while the Socialists, who called it “unacceptable”, and the Left might follow suit.

She is currently facing an inquiry back home into consultancy contracts granted under her watch and MEPs are angry that the Council has chosen a candidate who did not feature at all in the European election campaigns.

Parliament calls for Spitzenkandidat to be respected, liberals oppose it

The process of naming the next Commission president should respect the Spitzenkandidaten system, the leaders of the political groups in the European Parliament said in a joint statement on Tuesday (28 May), despite opposition from the liberal ALDE group.

Tusk nevertheless said he was happy with all the job picks and insisted that the leaders had made their decision on time, before the Parliament votes on its own president. He added that it was also a quicker process than five years ago and that consensus was achieved.

“It is now for the European Parliament to consider Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president” and for the Parliament to decide on its own leadership, Tusk explained.

According to Merkel, all four names were endorsed by unanimous vote, her own abstention notwithstanding. Michel’s election is final, while Lagarde and Borrell are also provisional.

Tusk said the current Belgian PM, who’s had experience in handling unwieldy ruling coalitions in Belgium, “will be ideal for building consensus among member states”, and that Spain’s foreign minister Borrell “will be a strong representative”.

Lagarde tweeted that she was “honoured” by the nomination and that she will “temporarily relinquish” her International Monetary Fund duties. Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez confirmed that Borrell’s foreign affairs portfolio will increase in importance.

Von der Leyen ultimately leap-frogged other candidates like Socialist Frans Timmermans and liberal Margrethe Vestager, who were nominated by their political families for the Commission job. Both have been promised vice-presidency positions in the upcoming mandate.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he is counting on them to be given the “highest responsibility” and suggested that Vestager should be given a position linked to green issues in some capacity.

Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier reportedly did not feature much in the leaders’ consultations, despite speculation that a last-minute bid would materialise. The Frenchman said that the picks are “a great team for Europe”.

Vestager will stay in Brussels, even without EU Commission presidency

Danish EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will stay in Brussels for a second term, the Scandinavian nation’s new prime minister announced yesterday (26 June), even if she fails in her bid to become the next President of the European Commission.

Winners and losers on the night

The European People’s Party won big as it holds on to the Commission position despite losing support in May’s European elections and facing up to the progressive coalition of the Socialists, Liberals and Greens.

It has also managed to install a member of its ranks provisionally in the ECB hot-seat in Lagarde, although the fact she is not a central banker has already raised questions about her suitability. She will face an internal hearing. 

But Europe’s socialists called the list of names “deeply disappointing” and group leader Iratxe Garcia said that it was “unacceptable” that Timmermans and the Spitzenkandidat system had been abandoned.

The Greens said the Council deal “fails to respect the lead candidate process and the results of the European elections”, labelling it a “backroom stitch-up”, and called for “a political change in Europe”.

Despite rumours that Angela Merkel was losing her political touch and leverage, Germany also benefits from the current proposal. The chancellor insisted that the Council had made a “very meaningful decision” through a “strong show of unity”.

The Bundesrepublik stands to add the EU executive to its already impressive jobs portfolio of EU’s key financial bodies, and the secretaries-general of the Parliament, external action service and the Commission itself.

French President Emmanuel Macron will also leave Brussels a satisfied man, after securing the ECB post and killing off the Spitzenkandidat system, of which he is perhaps the most outspoken critic.

Macron: 'No majority for Mr. Weber' and other Spitzenkandidats

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday (21 June) the three so-called Spitzenkandidaten – or lead candidates – for the European Commission presidency had each failed to receive enough support among European Union leaders in Brussels.

He said the agreement reflects a “deep entente” between France and Germany but denounced the “long meetings and crisis” mode of the Council, urging the institution to change the way it works.

Merkel threw the beleaguered lead candidate process a lifeline though by acknowledging that transnational lists “are a possibility”. Macron has made Spitzenkandidat’s future dependent on their inclusion in future European elections.

In his press conference, Macron acknowledged that there is no unanimity for a major change as things stand but added that he hopes the Council can take the work forward.

An institutional rift between the Council and Parliament is now shaping up after the member state body so brutally discarded the lead candidate system, which Parliament had insisted on. The job list also fails to respect political distribution, given its EPP-heavy slant and the absence of a green candidate.

Gender balancing act

At a summit in May, EU leaders agreed that gender balance should be given higher priority than in the past. That objective has provisionally been achieved with two of the top four positions going to women.

Tusk said the Council expects von der Leyen to ensure gender and geographical balance is respected when she assembles her Commission.

“Our assumption is that it is still possible that in the Parliament there’s still a chance that they will vote for a president from Central or Eastern European countries. It’s not for us to decide on this though,” the outgoing president admitted.

Tusk also said that the Council will encourage von der Leyen to include CEE and Italian candidates in her team. Italian PM Giuseppe Conte revealed that his government’s Commissioner will be given a vice-presidency and the competition portfolio.

Nominations for the Parliament presidency are due by 10 pm Strasbourg time and MEPs are set to elect their new leader on Wednesday (3 July). The Socialist Sergei Stanishev was put in orbit to head the institution for the first half of the mandate. But the news from Strasbourg indicate that his own political group will not put forward his name for the vote. 

EU summit suggests Stanishev to take over as European Parliament chief

Although it has not been committed to paper, EU leaders suggested that Bulgaria’s Sergei Stanishev, president of the Party of European Socialists, would be the president of the new European Parliament for the next 2.5 years, as part of a package agreed at the EU summit on Tuesday (2 July).

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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