So it is over. The marathon that was the European Council Extraordinary Summit to nominate the leaders of the European institutions wrapped up on 2 July in the afternoon - with some unexpected announcements for those kept on their tenterhooks throughout the entire process.
Having been unable to agree on a leadership package which comprised of the Spitzenkandidaten, the heads of state and government of the EU Member States forged their own path.
Donald Tusk told a fatigued press that the EU Council had approved the following nominees:
President of the European Commission: Ursula von der Leyen (60), Germany, currently German Minister of Defence, of the Christian Democratic Union (EPP)
President of the European Council: Charles Michel (43), Belgium, Interim Prime Minister, of the Reformist Movement (Renew Europe)
President of the European Central Bank: Christine Lagarde (63), France, currently Director of the International monetary fund (IMF)
High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy: Josep Borrell Fontelles (72), Spain, Minister for foreign affairs and the European Union, of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (S&D)
What happened to the Spitzenkandidaten? Who are these individuals? What happens now?
EU Leaders ditch the Spitzenkandidaten - will Parliament push back?
As explained in our previous briefing, the so-called “Osaka plan” to secure Timmermans as President of the European Commission failed against a wall of resistance put up by the Visegrad 4. This deadlock on Timmermans and the unpopularity of Weber to be Commission President led the EU 28 heads of state and government to think outside the box. With the leaders from the EPP eager to have one ‘of their own’, attention turned to the German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen. What is remarkable about her nomination by the European Council is that Germany had to abstain on the vote due to the SPD - Merkel’s coalition partner in government - disagreeing with the choice.
Von der Leyen’s nomination was met with hostility by those in the European Parliament who were arguing for the Spitzenkandidaten system to be respected. The Spanish MEP Iratxe Garcia, head of the S&D in the Parliament, was scathing of the European Council’s decision: "Ursula von der Leyen is unacceptable as head of the EU Commission for social democrats. We cannot simply throw the top candidate principle overboard because the results of the election do not suit some heads of government.” This hostility was echoed by Bas Eickhout from the Greens: “A backroom deal with candidates emerging to please the national leaders from Germany, France and Spain — this is not the change that was promised to European voters. EP should not follow.”
This backlash bodes ill for von der Leyen as on 16 July the European Parliament will vote in favour or against her nomination. Even if she secures the European People’s Party votes it only counts for 182 of the 376 required for an absolute majority.
With the S&D taking such a public stance against von der Leyen and still licking their wounds after their Spitzenkandidat - Timmermans - was rejected by the European Council, it is currently inconceivable that their 154 MEPs would support von der Leyen enmasse.
To add further difficulties, it is unlikely that von der Leyen can count on the support of the 74 MEPs belonging to the Greens/EFA. In the election of the President of the European Parliament on 3 July, Ska Keller (leader of the Greens/EFA) spoke passionately in favour of a more democratic Europe open to the citizens. Nonetheless, Tusk is still trying to persuade Greens/EFA to vote for a conservative Commission President, putting on the table the promise to ask for a Green Commissioner to be sent to Brussels. Hope for von der Leyen could come from Renew Europe as it is being reported by some that many of the groups MEPs could swing behind the candidate. Though, there could of course be a split in how the group votes, providing an early challenge for Renew Europe’s new President, the Romanian Dacian Cioloș.
For more information about the composition of seats in the Parliament please see the graphic below:
So where does that leave Ursula von der Leyen? Is her bid to become Commission President already set to fail?
Not without a fight it seems.
Von der Leyen jetted over to Strasbourg to meet MEPs and begin a charm offensive to win them over.
Using her command of the English, French and German language she regaled the MEPs of her European credentials: er early years in Brussels where her father worked for the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, precursors to the European
Commission, her strong belief in European unity and staunch defense of NATO. Certainly, her pro-EU beliefs and experience of managing a large ministry in Germany has won backers in the Parliament.
Yet, whilst she hopes to win friends in the European Parliament, she is not without her critics - indeed many from her home country. She is under fire for her handling of the German military which she has led since 2014. Rupert Scholz, who served as defense minister under Helmut Kohl, claimed that the “The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic." He went on to add that the “The entire defense capability of the Federal Republic is suffering, which is totally irresponsible."
Not only has she come under political criticism for her management of Germany’s armed forces, her ministry faces an investigation into suspected wrongdoing surrounding its use of outside consultants, including Accenture and McKinsey. The German federal parliament is holding a hearing into the affair, including accusations that von der Leyen’s office ignored public procurement rules in granting contracts worth millions of euros to the firms.
Whilst the attention has been on von der Leyen, other figures have stepped onto the scene to take some of the most coveted positions in the EU institutions.
Charles Michel, If you can manage Belgium politics - taking charge of the EU 28 should be easy
Often at EU Council Summits it can appear that there is more that divides EU leaders than unites them. Given the task of bringing unity where there is discord falls to EU Council President, someone with experience of achieving such a hard task would be a perfect candidate.
Cue, Charles Michel. After all, who else in the European political scene has recently forged consensus amongst leaders from different political families, with different political goals and all speaking a multitude of languages. In 2014 he created a coalition against the odds with his own party the MR, the conservative CD&V, liberal Open VLD and right-wing Flemish nationalist N-VA.
If you can triumph in the fragmented and jeopardous affair that is Belgian federal politics, an EU Council Summit should be easy, no?
Of course, it should be noted that his skills as a political operator have limits, as his delicately balanced government collapsed in December 2018 when the NVA walked out over the Belgian government signing the UN Migration Pact.
In his press conference, Donald Tusk alluded to Michel’s record in coalition building as a key factor in choosing him for the post: “Charles Michel will, with his experience as Belgian Prime Minister, be ideal for finding consensus and building unity among Member States.”
This positive announcement was echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron: “Michel is a real European, moreover coming from a member country of the euro zone and the Schengen zone. He is a leader who will be able to assume new formats”.
In his press conference after the Summit, Michel took to Twitter: “The appointment as President is a responsibility and a task that I will carry out with commitment, an EU united in respect of national diversity will be my objective.”
Spain - stepping into the spotlight
The nomination of Josep Borrell, Spain’s top diplomat, to the EU’s most senior foreign affairs role marks a return to European politics for the 72 year old who was President of the European Parliament from 2004-2007.
As an anti secessionist Catalan at the heart of the Spanish government, Borrell has made headlines in Spain with his hardline stance against the Catalonian independence movement. He was quoted referring to the Catalonian question as a war: “It is a war in which we can't use weapons but propaganda is key. They use it very well and the Spanish government very badly.”
The Spanish Prime Minister, Sanchez, fresh from back to back victories in the national and European elections declared that his success in lobbying for Borrel’s nomination shows that “Spain is back with a vengeance.” It is hard to argue with this line of argument as it is the 1st time in 10 years that a Spaniard has secured a leading post in the EU institutions.
However, Borrell isn’t without a chequered past. In 2018 he paid a $30,000 fine having been convicted of insider trading whilst he was a board member of Agengoa, a renewable energy group.
Christine Lagarde - game, set and match for Macron?
The nomination of the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, came as a long-awaited surprise, as she was not judged to be one of the main frontrunners to the current chief Mario Draghi, not last because of her lack of direct experience in monetary policy.
Nonetheless, it is a significant win for Macron, as he was lobbying hard for a French national to head up the important organisation. Another issue to take into consideration is what Lagarde at the ECB will mean for the eurozone. Whilst her detractors criticise the choice, she has the high-level political and economic experience needed to be credible in future drives to deepen integration of the Eurozone. Merkel commented in favour of her nomination and lauded the leadership she showed at the IMF, and said that “whoever can do that can also head the ECB”. Not to be forgotten that, if confirmed, she would be the first woman to lead the male-dominated monetary institution. Indeed, her selection helps European leaders to tick-off the gender balance requirement.
Securing this position really is the cherry on the cake for Macron in as far as this European Council goes. He has managed to negotiate 3 Francophones in the top jobs; crushed the Spitzenkandidat system he was never in favour of; and above all could see a President of the European Commission in office who owes her position largely thanks to Macron.
16 July - Keep the date in your diaries
With the nominations finalised, the clock is ticking down to 16 July when the Parliament will vote on von der Leyen’s nomination. If in a dramatic turn of events the Parliament rejects her nomination, it is back to the drawing board for the European Council who will have to propose a new candidate; it would have to do so keeping into account the already elected President of the European Parliament, the socialist David-Maria Sassoli, and of the European Council, liberal Charles Michel. If political balance between the institutions has to be respected, their election already means the end of the presidential aspirations of any socialist or liberal candidate.
The European Parliament has never before rejected a European Commission candidate, so it would truly be a historic step and show the deep anger and frustration felt by many MEPs at the rejection of all the Spitzenkandidaten.
Nonetheless, bear in mind that the only vote set to happen on 16 July is the one for the election of the European Commission President. Discussions about the College of Commissioners, including the High Representative, will only start once a chief has been formally confirmed.
As always, we will keep you informed!