Europe Selects its Next Batch of Leaders

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 11:15am

After several days of fractious debate, European heads of state today agreed on the new slate of EU political leaders. It was no small feat, as the decisions had to take into account disparate political ideologies, geography, country size, and gender balance.

Who’s Who

Commission President-designate: Ursula von der Leyen (EPP – Germany)

Von der Leyen hails from Germany’s center-right CDU Party.  She is Minister of Defense and a close ally of Chancellor Merkel, having served with Merkel since 2005.

  • She will be the first woman, and the second German, to become Commission President.
  • Von der Leyen’s nomination is expected to face intense scrutiny in the European Parliament (EP).
    • She was not formally considered as the EPP’s lead candidate
    • Germany lags other member states in terms of military funding and development. 
    • She’s seen as a technocrat, rather than an inspirational leader, and her management skills have been questioned. 

Council President-elect: Charles Michel (Renew Europe – Belgium)

Michel has been Prime Minister of Belgium since October 2014, and has led a caretaker government since December 2018.

  • Michel is a Belgian liberal, making him part of the new Renew Europe political group (formerly ALDE).
  • The second Belgian to helm the Council, he will assume office on December 1 for a 2.5 year term.
  • His experience balancing a four-party coalition government in Belgium will serve him well in forging compromises among EU heads of state.
  • Unlike Von der Leyen, Michel’s appointment is not subject to approval by the European Parliament.

European Central Bank (ECB) President-designate: Christine Lagarde (EPP – France)

Lagarde has led the International Monetary Fund since 2011. She served previously as French Minister of Finance, Minister for Agriculture, and Minister for Foreign Trade.

  • Her appointment is sparking controversy, as she is not a trained economist and doesn’t have central bank experience. There is also concern that her appointment could politicize the work of the ECB.
  • If confirmed, Lagarde will take over from Mario Draghi, whose promise to do “whatever it takes” to save the Euro is widely credited with helping to end the recession in Europe.
  • She will oversee the bank as Europe again faces economic headwinds driven by Brexit uncertainty, concerns about U.S. protectionism, and increased competition from China.

High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy-designate: Josep Borrell Fontelles (S&D – Spain)

Borrell is Spanish Foreign Minister. He was president of the European Parliament between 2004-2007.

  • Borrell will take over from Federica Mogherini as Europe’s top diplomat.
  • He is an avowed pro-European and is not known to mince his words.
  • Despite being born in Catalonia, Borrell has harshly criticized the secessionist movement there.  He is also a strong critic of President Trump.
  • His nomination underscores Spain’s growing prominence.

Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager (Renew Europe) and Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans (S&D) are expected to stay in the Commission and become “lead Vice Presidents”, representing Denmark and the Netherlands respectively.

​​​​​​​Manfred Weber, earlier seen as the lead candidate to helm the Commission, is now among the favorites to win election as president of the European Parliament (EP). New MEPs will elect their president tomorrow.

​​​​​​​Key Takeaways

  • Franco-German dominance and gender balance. Germany and France secured the two most important positions (Commission and ECB), and both will be led by women for the first time.
  • Central and Eastern Europe, Italy shut out. Though they blocked Timmermans’ bid for the Commission presidency, the central/Eastern European countries secured no position for themselves. Italy’s Euroskeptics were also left out.
  • No say for the UK. Prime Minister May sat on the sidelines during the deliberations, and had to commit to agree with any emerging consensus.

    What’s Next?

Michel is secure in his position as Council President. Lagarde must be approved by the European Parliament, and the ECB’s leadership changeover is set by law for November 1, 2019.

Von der Leyen and Borrell must be confirmed by the EP. This could be complicated since she was not her party’s lead candidate. The Council did its best to ensure all of the major parties got something, but the vote could still be difficult as she must secure an outright majority of the 751 MEPs.

Von der Leyen, assuming she’s confirmed, must then assemble a slate of Commissioners from all 28 (for now) EU member-states and assign their portfolios.  As with the process for filling the top jobs, this requires a careful balance of competing equities.

Some commissioners are expected to remain, albeit with different portfolios, including: Šefčovič (Slovakia, currently in charge of the Energy Union), Gabriel (Bulgaria, Digital Economy and Society), Dombrovskis (Latvia, Euro, Financial Stability, and Capital Markets Union), and Hogan (Ireland, Agriculture)

The EP will hold hearings to vet the slate and must either confirm or reject it in its entirety. Based on past experience, they can also exert political pressure to remove controversial nominees to avoid voting down the entire slate.

In theory, the EP will have voted by October 31, allowing the new Commission to assume office on November 1. Recent history suggests this process likely will be delated by a few weeks at least, if not longer.