The EU deal on top jobs puts women in the driving seat

A new generation is set to take on the European Union’s top jobs, and for the first time, women will be in the driving seat. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was chosen by EU leaders as the first woman President of the European Commission on July 2, at the end of an acrimonious, three-day summit in Brussels. The leaders also chose France’s Christine Lagarde, who currently runs the International Monetary Fund, to head the European Central Bank, arguably an even more powerful position. The two other major posts were given to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who was named as president of the European Council; and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who will be the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

The choices came after a convoluted set of negotiations likened to three-dimensional chess, in which the leaders tried to balance out gender, political affiliation, and geography – with the latter covering not just north and south members, but east and west, big and small, and even old and new. Inevitably, not all the goals were met.

The appointments could still theoretically be derailed by the European Parliament, with many MEPs angry that EU leaders have ignored their so-called Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate nominees for the Commission job. The Parliament has already elected Italy’s David-Maria Sassoli from centre-left S&D ground as its new President – ignoring the summit suggestions that they should elect an eastern European socialist, namely Bulgaria’s Sergei Stanichev.

Gender balance

The most obvious point about the choices is that the two biggest jobs go to women. Gender parity has long been an objective within the EU, but the Commission and ECB presidencies have eluded women until now. Donald Tusk, the outgoing European Council President was particularly pleased. “After all, Europe is a woman,” he said, referring to the Greek myth of Europa.

Both Mrs von der Leyen and Mrs Lagarde have earned reputations for competence and for communication. Crucially, they have earned the admiration of the EU’s pre-eminent leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. It was Mr Macron who apparently proposed Mrs von der Leyen, who was at one time seen as Mrs Merkel’s heir apparent. As for Mrs Lagarde, she was already mentioned back in 2014 as a potential candidate for the Commission presidency.

However, neither were anyone’s first choices. They emerged after EU leaders opposed the Spitzenkandidaten. These included German conservative Manfred Weber, from the centre-right EPP group; Dutch Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans from the S&D; and the Danish EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, from the liberal Renew Europe group (Mr Timmermans and Mrs Vestager will now stay at the Commission, both as Vice Presidents).

The EU’s growing complexity

The long, messy negotiations over the top jobs reflect the EU itself, which has grown in its complexity, as different interests and sensibilities are taken into account. But in some respects, this is not much different to national politics, where building a coalition can take weeks, even months (the EU is arguably more transparent and faster than national governments). Indeed, the complicated selection process reflects the real politicisation of the EU, something that pro-EU advocates have been asking for years.

Although the leaders decided to ignore the three main Spitzenkandidaten, this does not necessarily mark the end of the system. It succeeded in 2014, the first time it was used, when the Parliament held firm and rallied behind the EPP’s candidate Jean-Claude Juncker. This time, there was less support for the lead candidate of the largest parliamentary group, the EPP’s Mr Weber. However, if the Parliament pushes the idea of transnational lists, and if EU leaders can compromise with parliamentary factions, the Spitzenkandidaten could re-emerge in 2024.

The choice also shows how decision-making is becoming increasingly politicised. The summit discussions followed party politics and ideological cleavages, with the EPP using its power to ensure it got the best posts. Indeed, the results show how much the EPP has re-asserted itself. It had looked chastened after the European Parliament elections in May, losing more MEPs than any other group, and securing less than a quarter of the seats – even though it remained the biggest party. Mr Weber was rejected by EU leaders, and at one point during the summit, Mr Timmermans looked likely to be named Commission President.

But the EPP fought back, insisting on the top two posts. While Mrs von der Leyen and Mrs Lagarde are both moderates without a strong party power base, they are part of the EPP family. The EPP rejection of Mr Timmermans (even though he was backed by a formidable alliance of France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain) to instead go for Mrs von der Leyen reflects a political choice, not a geographical compromise.

In geographical terms, this is a victory for the old EU: Mrs von der Leyen, Mrs Lagarde and Mr Michel are from the six founding members, while Mr Borrell’s Spain joined in 1986. The losers are the newer eastern European countries and the Nordics, who had many strong potential candidates but failed to push them successfully. Indeed, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic seem to have spent much of their political capital trying to block Mr Timmermans, who they resent for leading the rule of law campaigns against them. This battle lost them bargaining power that could have been used to fight for one of the top jobs.

What to expect next?

What can we expect from the new team? In substance, they should represent a continuity, with all the nominees sharing the broad consensus over where they should be heading during these uncertain times. This is particularly so for Mrs von der Leyen, who is an avowed federalist. She has called for a ‘United States of Europe’ with its own army – and her defence background may pave the way for increased EU action on the topic.

Mrs von der Leyen has described Brexit “a burst bubble of hollow promises by populists”, but she – like Mrs Merkel – is ready to show patience in with the UK as it struggles with the herculean task of leaving the bloc. By contrast, Mr Michel – like Mr Macron – has taken a sterner view of Brexit and may be less willing to delay the UK’s departure from the EU. Inside the Commission, the controversial German Secretary General Martin Selmayr is expected to leave, as convention says he cannot share the same nationality as the President.

Yet the real change is likely to be in tone. Mr Juncker is often depicted as a remote and elite bureaucrat. But both Mrs von der Leyen and Mrs Lagarde look and sound very different to the current crop of leaders. They are warm articulate and engaging. They recognise the importance of getting closer to voters. In turn, people relate to them.

They also have interesting backstories. For example, Mrs von der Leyen is a mother-of-seven, is a qualified gynaecologist, studied at the London School of Economics as well as Stanford in the US, and only entered politics in her early 40s. Her background, character and gender could help show voters a more human side to the EU. That in itself could make a big difference.

Author: Roger Pallares-Sastre

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