Ursula von der Leyen to head European commission and Christine Lagarde to lead ECB
Daniel Boffey in Brussels – The Guardian
Two women have won the backing of the EU’s leaders to head the European commission and European Central Bank, breaking with more than 60 years of male dominance at the top of the bloc’s institutions.
After three days of tortuous negotiations, Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, received the support of heads of state and government to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the commission in Brussels. And the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, will move to Frankfurt to take over from Mario Draghi as the first female president of the ECB once it is formally signed off by the Eurozone group.
Von der Leyen, 60, who speaks fluent English and French and studied at the London School of Economics before taking a medical degree, is now the European commission president designate. She will only formally become the first female head of the EU’s executive branch if she wins the support of a majority of MEPs.
Donald Tusk, the outgoing president of the European council, said after the marathon talks: “I am really happy about it – after all, Europe is a woman. I think that it was worth waiting for such an outcome.”
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose coalition government abstained in what was otherwise a unanimous decision to back the nomination, said: “For me, it is also a good sign that a woman will have this office for the first time.”
Merkel noted that it was the first time in 52 years that a German national would be heading the commission.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, had proposed Von der Leyen to lead the commission after Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy rejected the candidature of the Dutch former foreign minister Frans Timmermans over his previous criticism of populist governments which fail to protect the independence of their judiciary.
Von der Leyen, a gynaecologist who only came to politics in her early 40s, regularly emerges in opinion polls as one of Germany’s most popular politicians.
The mother of seven introduced improved maternity and paternity benefits as Germany’s family affairs minister and drove forward boardroom gender quotas.
She has been working to increase funding for the country’s armed forces in her most recent government role although she has been mired in controversy over the awarding of contracts and has faced criticism about gaps in military readiness.
On Brexit, she has fully supported the commission’s position on the Northern Irish backstop, and criticised the “hollow promises” of those who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU.
At the end of the summit, Tusk said the new leadership would not offer concessions on the Brexit deal struck with London.
He told reporters: “I am absolutely sure that the new leaders of our institutions will be as consistent as we are today when it comes to the withdrawal agreement and our readiness to discuss our future relationship with the UK”.
Macron confirmed Tusk’s reading of the new leadership’s position on Brexit, adding that the EU should “not be afraid of a no deal”.
What does the European commission president do?
The 28 heads of state and government, of which only five are women, were under pressure to break the male monopoly on the top jobs although there was never any certainty this would happen.
The debate over the future leadership proved extremely difficult, with the leaders talking through the night on Sunday, and needing to meet again on Monday and Tuesday to find the right gender, geographical and political balance for the five top jobs soon to be vacant.
Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel, 43, has been chosen to replace Donald Tusk as president of the European council. Spain’s foreign minister Josep Borrell, 72, will become the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs if the commission as a whole is signed off by the parliament.
The European parliament is expected to elect its own president in a vote in Strasbourg on Wednesday, with the main political groups likely to support David-Maria Sassoli an Italian MEP for the Socialists and Democrats political group, as part of a delicate division of jobs among the parties.
Michel, who is in a caretaker role while Belgium’s politicians seek to negotiate a new federal government following May’s election, is a member of the Renew Europe political group formed out of a combination of the former liberal group in the parliament and French MEPs from Macron’s La République En Marche party.
The leaders’ nomination for the commission marks a break with the “Spitzenkandidaten” system, under which lead candidates were chosen by the political groups to campaign for the post during the elections.
Juncker was appointed in 2014 after his European People’s party group became the biggest party. This time he had championed the candidacy of Manfred Weber after the EPP group again proved to be the largest party, albeit weakened and in a more fractured parliament.
He said he feared the nomination might run into trouble when MEPs had their say. The parliament is able to reject the leaders’ candidate, and the entirety of the new president’s commission.
“The solution we’ve found is a good one,” Juncker said. “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.”
Tusk added: “I am not a prophet. It’s not for me to assess what is the real chance to achieve success in the parliament.”