“The European Council has agreed on the future leadership of the EU institutions”, said Donald Tusk, chairman of the EU leaders’ talks. It took multiple days and nights of negotiations, but the EU has selected its final choices for some key positions.
The results of the European Parliament elections in May left the bloc politically fractured, and leaders struggled to come to agreements on who would fill key positions that balanced political ideology, gender, and regional representation. Quite often, previous talks ended in a stalemate precisely because these positions were about bridging longstanding rifts (West versus East, conservative versus progressive, and nationalist versus pro-EU integration), at a time when Europe is increasingly politically polarised and fragmented – making consensus even more difficult.
Complicating matters further are outstanding crises, such as climate change, migration, the rise of right-wing sentiment in the wake of the global financial crisis, and the resulting inequality and brittle nature of many financial institutions.
However, Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, was the person finally selected as President of the European Commission, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker, once she clinches the support of a majority of MEPs. Her job will be to guide the EU in a time of social unrest and increased agitation from a resurgent eurosceptic right wing that seeks to destabilise the union from within.
Her appointment comes after Socialist favourite Frans Timmermans failed to garner sufficient support, and following the withdrawal of Manfred Weber, the centre-right EPP’s pick for the post.
Getting to this point was a dramatic, 48-hour-long proceeding. The EPP had in the end decided against backing Timmermans due to the back-room bargaining of the so-called Osaka Accord, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the unofficial leader of the EU Christian Democrats – said she had received Weber’s okay to propose him for the position of EU Parliament president instead; allowing her to come out in support of Timmermans for the position of EU Commission President.
And yet, previously Merkel had told centre-right leaders that the party line was to back Weber for the Commission presidency. Because the party line changed without them knowing, party leaders felt unable to change allegiances having already publicly backed Weber.
This, in turn, forced Merkel to abstain from the actual vote on Commission president, after weeks of negotiations due to the insistence of the EPP and Merkel, that the conservatives both retain the presidency and that the job go to Weber – who has not yet held a high-level executive office. Merkel also complained about how Weber had been treated throughout the process.
“One lead candidate”, Merkel said in reference to Weber “was from the beginning portrayed as not suitable. This cannot happen again.”
And while von der Leyen did not receive ringing endorsements from Eastern European members, the majority of eurosceptic MEPs from the region were simply happy to have defeated Timmermans’ candidacy. “We took up a position in important, substantive questions about these personnel decisions”, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in a statement. “We held that line as we said we would.”
On the other hand, the direction of the European Central Bank was awarded to Christine Lagarde, the French director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington. Having been at the helm of the IMF since 2011, and while not a formally trained economist, Lagarde is considered an excellent manager with extensive contacts worldwide. Both Lagarde and von der Leyen are political conservatives, and both are the first women to hold these key positions – arguably the two most important EU jobs up for grabs.
Charles Michel, the acting Belgian Prime Minister, was selected as president of the European Council of heads of state and government. Meanwhile, Josep Borrell, former Spanish foreign minister, was selected as the bloc’s new foreign policy chief.
“It is important that we were able to decide with great unity today, and that is important because it’s about our future ability to work”, Merkel told reporters after the nominations were made public.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that the nominations were “positive and consensual”. “This accord is the fruit of a deep Franco-German entente”, Macron said.
But not everyone is pleased with the results of back-room horse-trading.
“This backroom stitch-up after days of talks is grotesque“, said Ska Keller, a German MEP and co-leader of the Greens in the European Parliament. “It satisfies no one but party power games. After such a high turnout in the European elections and a real mandate for change, this is not what European citizens deserve (…). We don’t need the smallest common denominator satisfying personal interest and party politics”, Keller said. “We need a dynamic for political change in Europe and this is not offered by this package.”
Increased Diversity, Increased Controversy
The new European Parliament has more women than ever before, representing a solid 40 percent of the total members, including leading both the European Commission and the European Central Bank. It’s a good sign as the institution seeks to tackle ongoing gender bias in its top jobs.
“That’s a very important statement that Europe leads on gender equality“, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters. “It might have taken three days, but it’s a good outcome overall.”
“First and foremost, we have chosen two women and two men for the four key positions. A perfect gender balance. I am really happy about it. After all, Europe is a woman. I think that it was worth waiting for such an outcome”, agreed Tusk.
But the opening session was marred due to protests from a crowd of 4,000 concerning the three Catalan members barred from joining by Spain’s Supreme Court. Pro-independence Catalan leaders Carles Puigdemont, Toni Comin and Oriol Junqueras have not been able to take their seats as the Spanish electoral authority has not recognised them as members.
For Puigdemont and Comin, leaving their self-imposed exile and going to Madrid to collect their credentials means risking arrest and detainment. Instead of going to Spain personally to swear allegiance to the constitution, as is required, the two sent in written statements of allegiance in their stead – which were not accepted. Junqueras is still imprisoned and must await the verdict of Spain’s “trial of the century” before being released – if the verdict goes his way.
Hundreds of people protested their exclusion outside the building.
The EU General Court has also already dismissed an application submitted by Puigdemont and Comin to take their seats at the start of the session, while the challenges to Spanish authorities are considered. Instead, those seats will remain empty until they either take their oaths or give up their seats to other members on their party list. Should they successfully enter the European Parliament, they would receive immunity – placing the Spanish government in a tricky position.
“Any future parliament president would certainly have to also look into this because it’s also a matter of how do you defend the rights of those who have been elected into the European Parliament”, commented Ska Keller, co-leader of the Greens/European Free Alliance party.
Junqueras is also a party member.
Additional controversy dogged the new Parliament when 29 members of Britain’s eurosceptic Brexit Party literally turned their backs as the EU anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” was played live at the opening ceremony. Having initially gathered outside with “BeLeave in Britain” signs, the Brexit Party marched into the chamber en masse, and then turned their backs once the anthem began to play. Other lawmakers were infuriated by the display, denouncing it as disgraceful and pathetic. Farage described the cohort as “cheerfully defiant”.
In contrast, members from Britain’s pro-EU parties like the Liberal Democrats wore yellow T-shirts marked “Stop Brexit” and “Bollocks to Brexit”.
One Brexit Party MEP, David Bull, told BBC Radio 5 Live that he and his colleagues turned their backs on what we claimed was a “federal anthem”. “We were not turning our backs on our European friends and colleagues, we do not believe in a federal European state and an anthem is a symbol of that”, he said. “If it had been a national anthem we would have respected it. No-one in Europe has voted to have an anthem.”
One party was not present at all in the new Parliament: the European Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which was disbanded. It had been mostly comprised of a combination of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and Italy’s 5-Star Movement. Farage now, instead, leads the Brexit Party, with 29 seats, and the 5-Star Movement has fourteen. Both parties are considered unaffiliated. In order to form a political group, 25 members from at least 25 percent of the EU nations need to sign on – and even combined, the two fall far short of that rubric.