After marathon meeting, European Council agrees on EU leadership package – a good one

Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde, nominated yesterday to be, respectively, president of the European Commission and president of the European Central Bank.
Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Yesterday, after a three-day marathon of long meetings and late-night bilateral discussions, the European Council, the heads of state or government of the 28 member states of the EU, finally reached an agreement, in the wake of last month’s European Parliament election, on its choices for the four leadership positions of the EU – president of the European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, president of the European Council, and president of the European Central Bank.

There are a number of quite remarkable features to the package of proposed leaders. Certainly the one that will be most frequently commented upon in the media is the achievement of gender parity in the four positions. To replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the Council nominated Ursula von der Leyen, the German defense minister. And to replace Mario Draghi as the president of the European Central Bank, it proposed Christine Lagarde, the former French minister of the economy and finance and current managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

If approved – in von der Leyen’s case by the newly-elected European Parliament, in Lagarde’s case formally by the Council after consulting with the European Parliament and ECB Governing Council – this would be the first time a woman held either position and the first time women held two of the four leadership positions. Both bring a wealth of experience to the EU. Ms. von der Leyen, a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has served as a minister in all of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governments since 2005. She is the first woman in German history to serve as defense minister and, if approved by the Parliament, will be the first German to serve as Commission president since Walter Hallstein more than 50 years ago. And Lagarde served as minister of trade in the government of French president Jacques Chirac for two years and as minister for economy and finance in the government of President Nicholas Sarkozy for four years before moving to the IMF in 2011.

Interestingly, in his remarks at the conclusion of what was, in effect, a three-day meeting, Donald Tusk also announced that von der Leyen intends to nominate both Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager as the highest-ranking vice-presidents of the Commission. Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister, is currently the First Vice President of the Commission and Commissioner for Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations and Rule of Law, and was the Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) party group in the recent EP election. Vestager, a Danish Social Liberal, is a former minister of economic affairs and the current Commissioner for Competition, and she was the co-leader of the ALDE group of liberal parties’ “Team Europe” in the EP election campaign. (The group dispensed with a single Spitzenkandidat). The new Danish government headed by Mette Frederiksen, a Social Democrat, has said it would put forward Vestager for another term in the Commission. The Dutch government headed by Mark Rutte will do likewise with Timmermans.

Both Timmermans and Vestager figured prominently in the lengthy meetings of the European Council on May 28 and June 20 as possible alternatives to Manfred Weber as Commission president. Weber, a member of the German Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister-party of the CDU and leader of the European Peoples Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, was the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat in the election. Since it won the most seats in the election, the EPP presumed, in accord with the notion proclaimed by the parliamentary party groups in 2014 that the lead candidate of the party group with the most seats in the EP election would be nominated for Commission president, that Weber would be nominated for Commission president – notwithstanding the fact that the treaties assign the responsibility for nominating the president to the European Council. French President Emmanuel Macron in particular, but other leaders as well, opposed his candidacy both on the grounds that he had no experience either in the Commission or in the German government and, more generally, on the grounds that the Spitzenkandidaten idea deprives the Council of its responsibility under the treaties to nominate the president. In the earlier meetings of the European Council, Macron and others suggested both Timmermans and Vestager as preferable alternatives, to which Merkel responded that if Weber wasn’t nominated, no Spitzenkandidat would be nominated. But last week, on the sidelines of the G20 conference in Osaka, Merkel, who continued to support Weber – hardly a surprise given the relationship between the CDU and CSU and the CSU’s participation in her government – finally relented and agreed on a package of candidates that included Timmermans being nominated for Commission president.

But the Osaka deal didn’t survive the trip back to Europe, as quickly became apparent when the EU leaders reconvened Sunday evening to discuss the leadership candidates. Eight of the 28 leaders belong to national parties that are members of the EPP, and six of the eight are leaders of countries located in central and eastern Europe. Nominating Timmermans, who initiated the Article 7 rule of law process against Poland and Hungary and has other central and eastern European states in his sights, would be, as one of them – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – said, a “historical mistake.” The combination of EPP leaders opposed to nominating anyone other than the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, and central and eastern leaders opposed to Timmermans’ actions subjecting Poland, Hungary and perhaps others to the Article 7 process for violating the rule of law, should have made it obvious to Macron, Merkel and other supporters of the Osaka deal before they sat down to dinner Sunday that Timmermans would be blocked. But of course the central and eastern European leaders weren’t at the G20. When they made their views known Sunday evening, Donald Tusk was forced to call a time-out and conduct a lengthy series of bilateral meetings that went on throughout the night, schedule another meeting for Monday and yet another yesterday.

A second feature of the leadership package – one that will no doubt be regarded by some in central and eastern Europe as retribution for their blockage of Timmermans – is the fact that all four of the proposed leaders come from the west European member states. To replace Federica Mogherini as Commission Vice President and High Representative, the Council selected, subject to the Commission president-elect’s agreement, Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister and former president of the European Parliament. And to replace Donald Tusk as president of the European Council, it chose Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister (currently in a caretaker role since his government’s resignation in December). Borrell is a member of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and, of course, a member of the government headed by Pedro Sánchez. When Michel, the former leader of the francophone Mouvement Réformateur, was first appointed as a minister in 2007, he was the country’s youngest minister since 1841. And when he took office as prime minister in 2014, he was the country’s youngest prime minister since its creation as an independent country in 1830.

The concentration of leadership positions in the states of western Europe was further accentuated today when the European Parliament, meeting in Strasbourg, chose an Italian, David Sassoli, to replace Antonio Tajani, also an Italian, as its president. Sassoli is a member of Italy’s Democratic Party, a member of the S&D party group. Tajani is a member of Forza Italia, a member of the EPP party group.

Assuming all of the European Council’s choices are formally approved and take office – von der Leyen as Commission president, Borrell as High Representative, and Lagarde as ECB president on Nov. 1 and Michel as European Council president on Dec. 1 – the EU will conclude 2019 with a strong leadership team. Indeed, with von der Leyen heading a Commission that includes Vestager and Timmermans, two of the stars of the Juncker Commission, and Borrell, the new Commission will, if anything, be even stronger than the one that will leave office at the end of October. And while some will no doubt regret the departure of Mario Draghi, who pledged famously in 2012 to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro and the eurozone, and did precisely that, it is hard to imagine anyone more capable of managing the ECB – and more experienced in dealing with financial crises – than Christine Lagarde.

Nevertheless, it is also true there were winners and losers in the protracted and difficult process that eventually produced yesterday’s package of those who will lead the EU for the next five years. One of the big winners, certainly, was Macron, who succeeded in blocking Weber as the best-placed Spitzenkandidat for Commission president, placing a French woman as president of the ECB, placing a francophone Belgian leader who leads a party that belongs to the same liberal party group in the European Parliament – Renew Europe, the reconstituted ALDE group – to which his party, La République en Marche! (LREM) belongs, as High Representative, and ensuring that both Timmermans and Vestager will return to the new Commission in leadership roles while also ensuring that, although Merkel’s original candidate for Commission president was rejected, that positon will be filled by someone who is not only a German but a member of her CDU and a long-serving and close ally in her government.

For Merkel, certainly the scorecard is more mixed. The rejection of Weber, a member of the CSU, obviously did not help the often tense relationship within the government between the CDU and CSU which, although sister parties, have strongly disagreed over policies involving immigration and resettlement of refugees. The failure to deliver the Osaka deal and secure Timmermans’ nomination obviously damaged the tense relationship between the CDU and CSU and their partner in the tri-partite coalition, the SPD. It’s no wonder, given Weber’s membership in the CSU and Timmermans’ membership in the party group to which the SPD belongs, that Merkel abstained from the vote on von der Leyen. In addition, of course, while Lagarde is a friend, her appointment as president of the ECB obviously means Jens Weidmann, the president of the Bundesbank, will not be appointed to that position (although that was already decided when the European Council first decided to nominate von der Leyen for Commission president). Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the fact remains that the next president of the Commission will be a German woman who has been a close ally in all of the governments Merkel has headed since 2005. And that is a huge victory – for Germany, for women, and for the CDU.

Among the losers in the protracted negotiation that led to yesterday’s leadership package, two stand out. The leaders of the Visegrád group – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia – and those of several other central and eastern European member states who adamantly opposed, and ultimately blocked, the Osaka deal now find themselves unrepresented in the leadership. They will, of course, receive some vice presidencies in the Parliament and perhaps one or two in the Commission. But they are effectively on the outside, Timmermans will be back as one of the leaders of the Commission and if, by chance, Vestager takes over from Timmermans on the rule of law the central and eastern Europeans will find, as Apple, Google and others have found, that she can be quite fierce.

The obvious loser in the protracted negotiation are the parliamentary party groups themselves – at least those which conceived of the Spitzenkandidaten idea in 2014 and still buy into it. There’s nothing wrong with the party groups choosing one or more leaders to represent the group in European Parliament election campaign. But they presumably realize now that the heads of state and government are not about to relinquish their responsibility under the treaties to nominate the Commission president.


David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.