Brussels: After gruelling and bitter negotiations, the European Union finally decided on the heads of its key institutions, making history by putting forward two women for the most important jobs at a moment when the bloc’s unity is being tested as never before.
After the sort of exhausting, grinding process for which the bloc is now infamous, European leaders nominated two conservatives, the German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, as European Commission president, and the French head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, as head of the European Central Bank.
They ascended weeks after a new Parliament was elected that saw the larger parties losing ground to smaller, more ideological ones, testing the limits of the bloc’s need for consensus among 28 members that are increasingly divided — between West and East, conservative versus progressive, federalist European versus populist.
Ultimately, the negotiations were all about papering over those differences. If it was messy, the haggling also underscored how the EU matters more and more as the bloc struggles to respond to the challenges of migration, climate change, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, inequality and the rise of populists.
Not least, there is a lot of chaos now in Europe and in the trans-Atlantic relationship, with President Donald Trump threatening a trade war, serious divisions over how to deal with Iran and the continuing psychodrama of Brexit, which is a slowly ticking crisis with a possible no-deal explosion at its end.
Von der Leyen, 60, the multilingual German defence minister, will now replace Jean-Claude Juncker as the bloc’s most prominent bureaucrat, attending G-20 summit meetings and advancing EU interests in negotiations with the United States, China and other major powers.
In a package deal of political ideologies, gender and region, the leaders also decided to name Charles Michel, 43, the young acting Belgian prime minister, a liberal, as president of the European Council of heads of state and government, replacing Donald Tusk, and proposed Josep Borrell Fontelles, 72, a former Spanish foreign minister, as the new foreign-policy chief, to replace Federica Mogherini.
The talks among the 28 member states failed to produce a consensus earlier this month and nearly failed again Sunday night and Monday morning. They resumed again Tuesday with previous favourites having been killed off in the tough negotiations and amid an air of mounting crisis and fatigue.
Arriving at a consensus, always a challenge for the diverse members of the EU, was particularly hard this time around. Divisions in a more fragmented Europe proved harder to bridge. Traditionally, if the French and Germans agree on a policy, they usually get their way.
But the elections for the European Parliament in May broke the usual hold of the conservatives and social democrats; now they need the liberals and the party of President Emmanuel Macron of France to form a majority. So parsing out the key jobs was bound to prove more complicated.
The long debate also showed the decreasing influence of Merkel over her own conservative party grouping, the European People’s Party. And it prompted bitter comments from Macron after the group suspended its talks on Monday after 20 hours.
While the conservatives lost ground in the elections, they remain the largest party, and most believed that one of their party, if not necessarily their “leading candidate,” Manfred Weber, should get the Commission presidency.
Even among the conservatives, many believed that their trouble started with nominating Weber, who was widely considered too inexperienced for the job, especially now that Europe is facing so many problems. But they proved very unhappy with Merkel’s willingness to deal with Macron and hand over the Commission presidency to at least a nominal socialist, Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands.
Merkel faced an uprising, with fierce opposition from Poland and Hungary. Timmermans, as the deputy to Juncker, was the most outspoken European official criticising those countries for violating the rule of the law, and so had earned their enmity.
But other conservative leaders also opposed Timmermans, including the heads of governments of Latvia, Croatia and Ireland, arguing that it was absurd to hand over the presidency and complaining that Merkel had not bothered to consult them.
Italy’s effective leader and deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, also made it clear that he would oppose Timmermans.
PROFILE: Ursula von der Leyen
Germany’s centre-right defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, will be returning to the city of her birth, Brussels, once she’s confirmed to lead the European Union’s most important institution and her father’s former workplace: the European Commission.
A medical doctor and economist by training, she is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right party. She is likely to bring a fervour for more European integration to the job — music to the ears of much of her 32,000-strong staff of bureaucrats, but less so to sceptical leaders in countries like Hungary and Poland, who would like to keep their nations’ priorities front and centre.
Von der Leyen served as Germany’s first and, so far, only female defence minister, and had previously served in social policy roles like minister of family affairs, working in several of Merkel’s cabinets.
Her goal of a more integrated Europe — she told the German weekly Die Zeit in 2015 that she wanted her grandchildren to live in a ‘United States of Europe’ — could prove difficult to achieve at a time when a small but important part of the bloc wants to hold back. She has also expressed support for the idea of a European army, a rather extreme position even among so-called federalists who would like to see some national institutions phased out and replaced with joint EU ones.
One of von der Leyen’s top priorities will be overseeing the implementation of some kind of Brexit, though she has lamented Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and said Britain has brought much-needed pragmatism to Europe.