EU leaders nominate candidates for top posts

  • 2019-07-03
  • AFP/AP/BNS/TBT Staff

BRUSSELS, Jul 03, AFP-AP-BNS - EU leaders on Tuesday struck a hard-fought summit deal to put women in two of the bloc's most important jobs for the first time.

After three days of bitter wrangling, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was named to replace Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the European Commission for the next five years.

Once confirmed, von der Leyen will lead a commission facing a host of challenges, ranging from climate change to disinformation, populism and Brexit. 

Former French finance minister Christine Lagarde, who has led the International Monetary Fund since 2011, is to take charge at the European Central Bank.

The picks, confirmed by summit host and European Council President Donald Tusk, ended difficult talks that had dragged on since Sunday evening, dogged by division and infighting.

The 60-year-old conservative von der Leyen's name came into the frame after an earlier proposal to name Dutch Social Democrat Frans Timmermans ran into insurmountable opposition.

The package agreed by the 28 EU leaders also sees Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel take over from Tusk at the European Council of member states, while Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell becomes foreign policy chief, replacing Federica Mogherini.

Von der Leyen, a minister for the past 14 years under German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been an advocate for closer EU integration, calling for a "United States of Europe".

Both von der Leyen and Borrell still need the blessing of the European Parliament, and several senior figures in Timmermans' center-left group tweeted their disgruntlement at the proposed ticket.

Von der Leyen would take office on November 1 -- the day after Britain is currently due to leave the bloc.

Both candidates vying to take over as British prime minister have vowed to leave by that day come what may, so the new commissioner's first task in office could be to mop up the fall out from a messy "no deal" Brexit.

Von der Leyen had the crucial backing of French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as the support of the Visegrad Four bloc -- Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

This saved her from the fate suffered by Timmermans, who was floated by France and Germany but eventually dumped after a marathon 18-hour negotiating session that began on Sunday evening broke up without agreement on Monday.

Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said that all nominated candidates are able Europe-minded leaders with extensive experience who are well versed in the main challenges and key issues of the European Union.

"I am certain that Ursula von der Leyen will form a team of capable commissioners who will start working towards key objectives of the European Union," Ratas said.

"I am also very glad that this time women were found to be best candidates for leading positions in the European Commission and the European Central Bank," the Estonian prime minister said.

He added that the candidate nominated for the position of the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, understands Estonia's interests.

"Charles Michel is a representative of a small state with a good grasp of Estonia's positions and security situation, particularly in the light that Belgium has repeatedly served in Estonia as part of the NATO air policing mission as well as in the composition of the NATO battle group. My good colleague Michel has also visited Estonia on several occasions," Ratas said.

Timmermans was opposed by the Visegrad Four bloc plus Italy, where the populist government shares some of the Eastern Europeans' anger at Brussels over migration.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis says getting Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans to lead the EU's executive Commission will be not be acceptable to several eastern member states and Italy. 

"He has always pushed a migration policy which is unacceptable for us, so this man is absolutely unacceptable and I can't see why the prime ministers of France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany weren't able to understand," Babis said.

Other countries -- including Ireland, Latvia and Croatia -- also objected on the grounds they had not been properly consulted about the French-German plan cooked up on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka at the weekend.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez initially stood firm behind fellow Social Democrat Timmermans on Tuesday, but after a morning of bilateral and small group meetings among leaders, the Dutchman's chances were finally buried, according to two sources close to the talks.

Deciding the top jobs has been complicated by the fragmentation of the EU political landscape in the May elections to the European Parliament.

The center-right European People's Party (EPP) and center-left socialist group, the dominant forces in EU politics for years, lost their combined majority in the assembly.

The liberals, which include Macron supporters, are increasingly assertive over the choice of top jobs.

Protracted wrangling to dish out the EU's top jobs is not new -- in 2014 it took three summits to fill the posts.