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17th Apr 2021

EU leaders nominate first female EU commission chief

  • Brussels-born Ursula Von Der Leyen will still need to be approve by the EU parliament (Photo: securityconference.de)

EU leaders agreed to nominate the current German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, to be the first woman president of the EU commission on Tuesday (2 July) - but only after three consecutive days of discussions that often exposed deep division among the 28 heads of state and government.

The EU parliament still needs to give its final approval for von der Leyen, and many MEPs are angered by the deal, which picked a commission president who was not a lead candidate in the European elections last May.

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  • Christiane Lagarde will lead the powerful European Central Bank (Photo: Council of the EU)

The EU leaders also named Belgian premier Charles Michel to be EU council president, and chose Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell to head the EU's foreign affairs service.

The leaders also agreed to name French head of the International Monetary Fund, Christian Lagarde to run the European Central Bank (ECB) later this year.

The compromise deal came late on Tuesday after the first set of proposals, putting Dutch Socialist commissioner Frans Timmermans in the commission top job, met heavy resistance from the eastern European countries of the Visegrad Four, plus Italy and several leaders hailing from the European People's Party (EPP) group.

The EPP won the election last May, despite some losses, and wanted the commission top job for one of their peers.

However, EU diplomats pointed out that the real entrenched resistance to Timmermans came from Italy and the Visegrad Four, where particularly Hungary and Poland had clashed with Timmermans over the Warsaw and Budapest government's curbing of rule of law and democracy over the past two years.

The 60-years old conservative Von Der Leyen's name came into play on Monday in the early hours, but was proposed seriously for the commission post by French president Emmanuel Macron, who also suggested that Lagarde be the ECB chief.

"This accord is the fruit of a deep Franco-German entente," Macron later told reporters.

Germany, Italy, and others, including the Visegrad Four came on board as Tuesday was spent mostly on EU Council president Donald Tusk consulting with EU leaders on the new constellation of names - with von der Leyen in the commission position.

"We believe that this is a good group of people that we have nominated," German chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the meeting.

"It is a good thing that for the very first time a woman is going to hold that. I welcome that, irrespective of any country or party considerations on my part," she said.

Von Der Leyen, a Brussels-born Merkel-ally, was in the end supported unanimously by EU leaders, except for Merkel, who ironically needed to abstain - although leaders did not take a formal vote - because her domestic coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) in Berlin, did not support the package.

Power play

The deal also means that leaders did not choose a commission president from the lead candidates put forward by the European political families for the European elections, risking an institutional clash with the EU parliament.

To salvage the concept of the Spitzenkandidaten system, leaders want to make lead candidates Timmermans and Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager vice presidents of the new commission.

"Timmermans remains where he is today, the most senior position next to the chairman in the commission," Dutch premier Mark Rutte said.

To make way for Von Der Leyen's approval, the centre-right EPP's lead candidate Manfred Weber withdrew himself for the race for the commission top job earlier in the day.

Merkel told reporters after the summit that she wants to see the lead candidate system continue, but said that it needs to be better defined - and there might be a need for transnational list at the next EU elections.

She added that she hopes Weber would be voted in as EP president for half of the five-year term of the EU parliament.

EU leaders were also not able to find an eastern European politician for any of the top jobs, even though they pledged to strive for geographical, political and gender balance. They want to make Maros Sefcovic, Slovakia's socialist commissioner vice president of the new EU executive.

The EU leaders stayed away from deciding who the next European parliament president should be, which MEPs will now vote on on Wednesday (3 July).

Socialist and Green MEPs meanwhile criticised the leaders' decisions, with the Greens saying they will not support the German nominee for the top position.

Germany's socialists MEPs were especially angered by the proposal to put a conservative in the top seat, but it is yet unclear if they would try to block von der Leyen's approval.

"Would the SPD want to take the blame for stopping a German commission president? Would the parliament stop the first ever female commission president," quipped one diplomat.

"We have to fight for the support of the EP," Merkel admitted to reporters, however.

Besides EU leaders deciding on the top jobs, there was also discussion on the EU commission's chief all-powerful civil servant, Martin Selmayr, who has irked many leaders over the years.

According to a source familiar with the discussions, several member states, including France, said the German "eminence grise" needs to go from his positions once the new commission president takes office.

German minister presidency plan upsets MEPs

While EU leaders seem to converge around German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president, the European Parliament is not happy with the emerging agreement on top jobs.

Key states push Timmermans for commission president

The Angela Merkel-inspired 'Osaka plan' to nominate socialist Frans Timmermans as the commission president hit major roadblocks within her own party alliance the EU 'top jobs' summit kicked off in Brussels.

Magazine

The Spitzen process - a coup that was never accepted

It is a divisive 'Brussels bubble' debate: whether to give the European Parliament more of a say on who becomes the next European Commission president. But the issue goes right to the heart of European integration.

Who are the EU's new leaders?

Three out of the four people to lead the EU institutions in Brussels for the next five years were selected Tuesday, but none are well-known outside their own countries. The fourth, the European Parliament president, is to be chosen Wednesday.

Greens eye 'kingmaker' role among MEPs for von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen immediately visited the European Parliament on Wednesday in order to gather support for her nomination to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as EU Commission president. The Greens will now be key for her to secure the job.

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