After much political wrangling, the new leader of the European Union has been selected. German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen will be tasked with carrying on the work of outgoing EU president Jean Claude Junker.
Von der Leyen beat out compatriot Manfred Weber, whose lack of political experience counted against him, despite being the PPE’s official nominee.
In other prominent appointments, France’s Christine Lagarde becomes the first female head of the European Central Bank, Belgium’s Charles Michel is the new president of the European Council and Spain’s Josep Borrell is the new foreign policy czar.
Berlin and Paris remain the powerbrokers
For many observers, the Franco-German alliance has been on shaky ground for some time now, with the public smiles and handshakes between Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel a mere façade. Yet, despite their differences, Berlin and Paris have been able to work together when it suits them, as the selection of the new directors of the European Union proves. There was a little something for everyone, egos were satisfied, and the EU’s political family remained intact.
The big loser was Manfred Weber, whose appointment to the EU’s top job had at one point seemed a formality. The convention in Europe had long been that each EU party nominate its Spitzenkandidat, or preferred choice. For the EPP, that person was Weber. However, Macron had other ideas. For the French premier, it was inconceivable that someone who had never been a minister in his homeland would be handed the EU presidency. The fact that Weber does not speak French only compounded the problem. For Angela Merkel, the fact that Weber was from her CDU-CSU party meant that she would not drop her support for him without being able to save face. A CDU-CSU member would have to be found to replace Weber. Ursula von der Leyen was than more than acceptable to Paris as she speaks fluent French and is an ardent proponent of a single European defense force, a cause célèbre of the current occupant of the Elysée.
EU banks on Lagarde
Another win for Macron was Christine Lagarde becoming the new president of the ECB. The outgoing head of the International Monetary Fund may never have run a national bank, but her international experience more than makes up for this gap in her CV. The Germans, for their part, were reassured, as their nightmare scenario would have been to see an anti-austerity candidate win the job.
Liberals and socialists not left empty handed
The Liberals were the other big winners this week. Although their sights had been set on Margrethe Vesteger getting the top job, Charles Michel succeeding Donald Tusk at the head of the European Council, is far from a consolation prize. The role requires an international dimension and an ability to negotiate, qualities Michel has in abundance. Belgian prime minister between 2014 and 2018, he presided over a coalition of nationalist Flemish and French-speaking Walloons, notoriously uneasy bedfellows who held together for the length of his mandate.
To respect the political and geographic balance within the EU, it was a smart move to give the foreign affairs and security mandate, currently held by the Italian Federica Mogherini, to another southern European. 72-year-old Spaniard Josep Borrell is an experienced diplomat who has been Spain’s minister for foreign affairs. The Socialist was president of the European parliament from 2004 to 2007.