EU governments’ surprise nominee for president of the European Union’s executive, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, will seek support in the EU parliament on Wednesday hoping to secure the confirmation that she will need in two weeks’ time.
In a deal done by the 28 member governments on Tuesday after long and fraught negotiations, Von der Leyen, a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is due to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and France’s Christine Lagarde will head the European Central Bank.
Leaders hope the decision to put two women at the top of EU decision-making for the first time will send a positive message and repair damage wrought by such a fractious summit, diplomats said.
“After all, Europe is a woman,” Donald Tusk, the outgoing chair of EU summits, told reporters, referring to the ancient Greek mythical figure of Europa who gave her name to the continent.
Lagarde, once France’s first woman finance minister and since 2011 head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is a strong advocate of female empowerment, although she has no direct, active monetary policy experience.
The biggest task for Lagarde, who had previously denied any interest in an EU job, will be to revive the euro zone economy.
“Christine Lagarde will … be a perfect president of the European Central Bank,” Tusk said. “I am absolutely sure that she will be a very independent president …”
Von der Leyen, currently German defence minister, would run the powerful Commission, which supervises EU states’ budgets, acts as the bloc’s competition watchdog and conducts trade negotiations with outside countries. Her presidency would shape policy for the world’s biggest trade bloc and its 500 million people.
She once had a reputation as a flawless politician, but Brussels-born Von der Leyen has had a scandal-prone run in the German defence ministry, mainly over right-wing extremism in the armed forces, gaps in military readiness, and the awarding of arms contracts.
The selection wrangles echoed a wider fracturing of the EU’s political centre that was evident in May’s elections to the Strasbourg parliament, which delivered a more fragmented assembly with bigger far-right and far-left contingents.
“In the end, we’ve got a package that found unanimity and that’s a very important achievement,” said a senior EU diplomat, who asked not to be named.
“It’s the eternal compromise, but that’s how we work … The parliament will make its peace with it. They’ll huff and puff, as they do. But they’ll back it in the end.”
Von der Leyen needs to be confirmed in her new job by an absolute majority of the 751 EU lawmakers.
On paper, she ought to be able to secure those votes comfortably, but she may hit resistance in an assembly aggrieved that EU leaders ignored the lead candidates from the main parliamentary blocs – the “Spitzenkandidaten” – in their horse-trading over top posts.
The parliament did, however, get its wish on Wednesday to choose its own preferred candidate as speaker for the next 2-1/2 years, something that may smooth ruffled feathers.
Italian socialist David Sassoli, a 63-year-old former journalist who has served for 10 years as an EU lawmaker, was elected after two rounds of voting.
The socialist and green groupings had been particularly upset at Von der Leyen’s nomination.
“This backroom stitch-up after days of talks is grotesque, it satisfies no one but party power games,” said Greens leader Ska Keller.
The socialists’ leader in the assembly, Spain’s Iratxe Garcia, called the agreement “deeply disappointing”.
They were mostly angered by east European leaders’ rejection of socialist Frans Timmermans as Commission head, a move that many saw as retaliation against Timmermans’ accusations of civil rights violations in Hungary and Poland.
Von der Leyen can, however, rely on the support of the main centre-right and liberal groupings. Another conservative group led by Poland’s ruling PiS party also looks set to back her.
Most Italian lawmakers, although eurosceptic, are also likely to support Von der Leyen, after Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte welcomed the deal on her nomination.
This would give her enough votes to be endorsed, even without the backing of the socialists.
Under the deal reached by the EU leaders, and backed by conservatives, the centre-right will have the presidency of the parliament in the second half of the five-year legislature.
In other decisions on Tuesday, Spain’s acting foreign minister, Josep Borrell, a socialist, was nominated as the EU’s new top diplomat in Brussels.
While a gender balance has been maintained in choosing the EU’s top posts, the East-West balance has been neglected, with no eastern European designated for a top position.