EU leaders back Merkel ally Ursula von der Leyen to be European Commission president

Scandal-hit German defence minister could replace Jean-Claude Juncker if parliament gives its backing

Jon Stone
Tuesday 02 July 2019 19:14
Donald Tusk announces Belgian prime minister as his replacement and German defence minister nominated as European Commission president

EU leaders have endorsed Angela Merkel ally Ursula von der Leyen to be the next president of the European Commission, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker.

The backing by the national leaders, which still needs to be approved by the European parliament, comes after three days of late-night and early-morning summit meetings in Brussels.

Leaders also confirmed outgoing Belgian liberal prime minister Charles Michel to replace Donald Tusk as European Council president, and endorsed the Macron-supporting chair of the IMF Christine Lagarde to run the European Central Bank. They proposed Spanish socialist foreign affairs minister Josep Borrell Fontelles to be the bloc’s new foreign affairs chief.

Ms Von der Leyen’s proposal as commission president is likely to be highly controversial because she did not stand or campaign in the European parliament elections last month – which MEPs have said would be a crucial qualification for anyone to take the EU’s top post.

A Christian Democrat, she has served as defence minister in Germany since 2013 and is a close ally of the outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel. She is the first woman to hold the defence portfolio in Germany, and would also be the first woman to hold the European Commission presidency.

But she has also faced controversy at home. In December she faced a parliamentary investigation over claims of poor management and nepotism in relation to her department’s awarding of contracts and close relationship with defence consultants. She was also embroiled in a scandal about possible plagiarism and errors in her doctorate.

Ms Von der Leyen is a staunch EU federalist and has called for ”a united states of Europe – run along the lines of the federal states of Switzerland, Germany or the USA”. She has said an EU army should be a long-term goal.

The sitting council president, Donald Tusk, announced that leaders had “agreed on the future leadership of the EU institutions” at around 7pm Brussels time on Tuesday.

The package has come in for criticism already, however. Sven Giegold, the German Greens’ lead candidate in the European elections, said the announcement was “an arrogant appropriation of power”, adding: “Parliamentarians need to defend European democracy now!”

In a statement, the German social democrats criticised the fact that “someone who has not stood at all in the election” was nominated, arguing that the proposal had rendered recent attempts ”to democratize the European Union obsolete”. The party spokesperson added that they rejected the package.

Iratxe García, leader of the EU-wide socialist group in the parliament said: “This proposal is deeply disappointing for us. Our Group has remained firm in the defence of European democracy and the leading candidate or Spitzenkandidat process, and we don’t want it to die.

“It is unacceptable that populist governments represented in the Council rule out the best candidate only because he has stood up for the rule of law and for our shared European values.”

Notably, the German government abstained in the European Council vote on whether to propose Ms Von der Leyen as its nominee – because the Social Democrats, Angela Merkel’s coalition partners, objected to her. Ms Merkel is personally supportive of her ally’s candidacy, however,

In a press conference after the meeting, Mr Tusk said it would “now be for the European parliament” to decide whether to approve the nominees.

He said there was a “huge question mark” about whether parliament would approve the package, added: “I am not a prophet, it is not for me to assess what is the real chance to achieve success in the parliament.”

Mr Tusk said Ms Von der Leyen had agreed to appoint Socialist candidate Frans Timmermans and Social Liberal candidate Margrethe Vestager as her vice presidents. The two politicians had been runners for the presidency – with Mr Timmermans looking like the final pick until the last 24 hours, before he was vetoed by populist right-wing governments in central and eastern Europe.

He also confirmed that there was no prospect of the new leadership changing its approach on Brexit.

Ahead of the announcement, a spokesperson for Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orban said: “In our unity, the Visegrad Four [Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland] have again demonstrated our growing strength and influence over the direction of EU. After defeating [Manfred] Weber, the V4 prime ministers have toppled Timmermans as well. As negotiations continue we have put on the EU table a package that is winning acceptance among a growing number of member countries: the Visegrad Four support German minister of defense Ursula von der Leyen as the next European Commission president.”

In a statement, Jean-Claude Juncker said: “The solution we’ve found is a good one. 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 spitzenkandidaten process suffered a setback.”

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