A shake-up in Brussels

At a time in which the EU is facing challenges from inside and outside of its borders, EU leaders have turned to highly political individuals to pave the path forward

Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen

The European Parliamentary elections are an interesting exercise in the democratic expression of more than half a billion people across Europe. From the chilly Nordic nations in the north to the sunnier Mediterranean nations in the south, people cast their vote in order to determine the composition of the European Parliament. But more than that, their vote helps to determine the composition of the EU’s leadership, namely the heads of the European Commission, European Council, European Parliament and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs. This time around, the European Central Bank’s top post was also up for grabs.

There was a problem, however. Whilst some EU leaders, the European Parliament, and top prospects for EU jobs preferred the ​Spitzenkandidat ​(or preferred candidate system, in this case, the candidates for the leading EU political parties), a number of powerful EU leaders opposed either the system, certain candidates, or both. This led to a clash between the European Council and the European Parliament over who would get which jobs.

To make a long story short, the Council seems to have won out on this occasion, nominating four individuals for top posts - and the most interesting part of this all is that none of these prospective EU leaders were really expected to make the leap to these prestigious, and demanding positions. The decision came completely out of the blue for EU observers, and in this case, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The European Council announced the nominated individuals as follows:

  • The German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen nominated as the President of the European Commission,
  • Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has been nominated as the head of the European Council,
  • The current IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has been nominated as the head of the European Central Bank,
  • And Spanish Foreign Minister and former European Parliament President, Josep Borrell has been nominated as the EU’s foreign policy chief,
  • Meanwhile, MEPs elected David Sassoli as President of the European Parliament on the 3rd of June.

The nominations can be seen as a win for those who were against the ​Spitzenkandidat ​system, particularly Emmanuel Macron, who had fought tooth and nail to ensure that Manfred Weber, the head of the rival EPP, did not land the Commission Presidency. In addition, the Minister von der Leyen, herself an accomplished individual qualified as both an economist and a medical doctor, is an avowed EU federalist, who has said that she aims to achieve a United States of Europe. This rings well with Macron’s aim of closer European integration.

Whilst the previous Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, is also considered a federalist, Juncker rarely gave any significant backing to Macron’s loftier European policy proposals. The French President will be hoping that under the stewardship of his successor, he will enjoy more robust support to push further integration amongst EU members. Her record as German Defense Minister is weaker than she may like, with the German army arguably regressing under her watch. But her political ideology is attractive to those in Brussels, and that along with her being a compromise candidate pushed her over the line.

Belgian (caretaker) PM Charles Michel is an interesting nomination for the post of Council President. He is an individual who has risen through Belgian politics quite quickly, and at the ripe age of 43 is being touted for one of Europe’s top posts. This shows both the esteem in which he is held amongst his peers in the Council, but also their belief that his ability to negotiate the tricky environment of Belgian politics, which is rife with factionalism between different interests, would be invaluable as the head of the European Council - a post which requires a high degree of resilience and negotiating ability.

The post of ECB President may well go to the current IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde. The former French Finance Minister has no formal economics training or any specific expertise in monetary policy per se. But she is also widely trusted in the international community as a pragmatic negotiator and a good communicator. She does have some skeletons in her closet, with her involvement (albeit indirect on many occasions) in several scandals during her time as Finance Minister. However, her experience as a political figurehead both in France and in Washington may help to push the ECB’s agenda, and drag more reluctant countries like Germany and the Netherlands into the fold, leaving the nuts and bolts of devising the ECB’s monetary policy to its capable economists.

Josep Borrell rounds off the list with his nomination for the post of the EU’s foreign envoy. He is an old hand at 72, but an experienced one. Known for shooting off at the hip, criticising Russia and Donald Trump in equal measure, and also being accused of being too sympathetic to Iran. He comes in at a time in which the EU’s ability to influence global events remains behind that of the US and China, and when a number of crises are simmering in numerous hotspots around the world. The most pressing foreign policy issue at the moment is Iran, and Borrell will need to temper his public comments to avoid stoking controversy within the EU28 and promoting a united front. Whilst he is seen as a loose cannon at times within Spanish circles, this may lead to the shake-up of the EU’s foreign policy that it may well need.

These nominees are not what anyone, not least myself, expected. They are an interesting group of individuals who are highly political animals, with well-known views and little intention of hiding them. At a time in which the EU is facing more robust challenges from both inside, and outside of its borders, European leaders are turning to individuals who are known to be resilient and tough negotiators, not shy to speak their minds. Whether that means that they are qualified for their posts is open to debate. But the EU will be projecting its voice around the world like never before and seeking to push the boundaries of European cooperation beyond what has been achieved to date, of that, we can be reasonably certain. Whether that translates into concrete results... that remains to be seen.

More in Blogs