Marathon talks pick out new EU leaders

By on 07/07/2019 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Von der Leyen: German defence minister nominated for top job after favourites blocked (Image courtesy: Global Panorama/Mueller/MSC)

After a tortuous set of negotiations, EU leaders have decided that Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, should replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission.

Candidates for three further top EU positions were nominated during the tense summit. Christine Lagarde, currently director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), will move to head up the European Central Bank (ECB). Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel, will replace Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. And the post of high representative for foreign affairs and security policy will be filled by Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell.

Ursula von der Leyen will be the first woman to take up the top Commission job. The former doctor and mother of seven entered politics in her 40s, and has been a member of Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) since 2005.

Christine Lagarde’s nomination promises another first, with the appointment of the ECB’s first woman leader. She is to replace Mario Draghi when his eight-year term ends in October. Lagarde, who began her career as a lawyer, was also the first woman to head the IMF, where she has been director since 2011. She has previously served as France’s trade minister and foreign minister.

Charles Michel, the proposed new president of the European Council – taking over from Donald Tusk – is the current interim prime minister of Belgium. He leads the Francophone-liberal Mouvement Reformateur (MR) and has headed the country’s coalition government since 2014. Inconclusive elections in May means he is now the temporary prime minister until a new coalition is formed. Michel trained as a lawyer before entering politics, where he gained a ministerial position at 25 and became prime minister at just 38.

Josep Borrell, nominated to become the EU’s foreign policy chief, is currently Spain’s social democrat foreign minister. The 72-year-old politician has previously worked as an engineer and an economist, and has extensive EU experience: he’s previously served as both an MEP and president of the European Parliament. 

On Monday it looked as if the summit might end in failure, after talks lasting all night failed to provide agreement. The final decision to nominate Von der Leyen to lead the Commission has since proved especially contentious.

Under the EU’s ‘Spitzenkandidat’ or ‘lead candidate’ convention, the European Parliament’s political parties – groupings of MEPs of similar political leanings – put forward a lead candidate with a manifesto for the top Commission job.

But after three days and nights of heated talks, the EU heads of state abandoned the Spitzenkandidat process and decided upon Ursula von der Leyen, who was not on the ballot paper and did not have a manifesto.

Left-wing lead candidate and former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans had been tipped for the job, but was rejected at the last minute by Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy over his track record of criticising populist governments.

Another of the favourites, Manfred Weber, who leads the largest party – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – dropped out when agreement could not be reached.

The decision to appoint Von der Leyen still needs to be ratified with the European Parliament, and this may prove difficult. Her nomination, and the unconventional way it was reached, has angered the European parliament’s political groups on both the left and the right.

Juncker told the Guardian: “The solution we’ve found is a good one”.

“Ursula von der Leyen has extensive experience in defence and social policy. I believe it would be in the European Parliament’s interest to approve this, though I am sad the Spitzenkandidat process suffered a setback.”

Speaking after the summit, Donald Tusk said: “We have chosen two women and two men for the four key positions – a perfect gender balance,” CNN reported.

A day after the four nominations were made, David Maria Sassoli was elected as president of the European Parliament. The centre-left Italian MEP and former journalist received the support of 345 out of 667 MEPs to win the position, and will begin in his new role immediately.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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