Nominees to take the European Union’s highest offices are more diverse than any in the past. Is this what it will take to fix the continent’s longstanding issues?
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After three days of deadlock and one of the longest-ever European Union summits—beating even the all-nighters that marked the Greek debt crisis—European Council President Donald Tusk announced the bloc’s leaders for the next five years.
To most, the appointments were an utter surprise: Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was tapped to take over the EU’s powerful executive arm—the European Commission, which proposes and enforces the union’s laws. She will replace current President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has served in the position since late 2014.
Heading the European Central Bank is France’s Christine Lagarde. Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel was selected to become president of the European Council and Spain’s Josep Borrell the foreign policy chief.
Every one of them were put forward as last-minute candidates by EU leaders as part of an overall appointments package, sidestepping parliamentary wishes.
The response from lawmakers was fierce.
Some of those in the European Parliament accused Mr. Tusk and the bloc’s leaders of handpicking the candidates in a series of shady backroom deals. They saw it as “an undemocratic stitch-up by national governments,” according to The Independent.
The council operated outside parliament’s preferred system of spitzenkandidat—meaning “lead candidate”—in which parliament nominates their candidates for president prior to elections.
None of the candidates appeared real contenders a week previous. Despite insistence from leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron that only the best be chosen, the nominees’ professional credentials were low on the list of priorities. Ms. von der Leyen was not even on the ballot paper as a candidate and she had no manifesto.
But this time the council decided for itself that picking politicians for political reasons, not competence, would suit the continent’s future much better. They were chosen to represent a wider diversity of cultures and genders in the bloc’s highest echelon of power.
“First and foremost, we have chosen two women and two men for the four key positions. A perfect gender balance,” Mr. Tusk said in remarks after the special meeting determining the nominations. “I am really happy about it. After all, Europe is a woman.”
The first test as to whether Europe as a whole would be “happy about it” was through parliament, which voted 383-327 with 22 abstentions to approve Ms. von der Leyen’s nomination. The confirmation required an absolute majority of 374 votes and the outgoing German defense minister scraped through with just nine votes to spare.
The same division permeates Europe, which continues to be fractured by political rivalries.
“We need to overcome this division,” Ms. von der Leyen stated after her confirmation, referring to the increasing rift between European nations over issues such as climate, migration and democratic values.
There is also the question of how the EU will handle Brexit. Britain is scheduled to depart from the EU October 31, the day before Ms. von der Leyen officially takes office. And the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to leave the EU with or without a deal, insisting he will not hold Brexit talks with EU leaders unless the bloc lifts its refusal to reopen the existing divorce deal.
Despite the secretive nature of the selection of these leaders, perhaps this is the dream team needed to breakthrough Europe’s impasse on increasing division.
In 2011, long before she could have foreseen filling the role of European Commission president, Ms. von der Leyen expressed her vision for the continent.
“My aim is the United States of Europe—on the model of federal states such as Switzerland, Germany or the U.S.,” she said in an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel while serving in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet.
Establishing lasting cohesion will be no easier in Europe today. Western nations worry that Hungary and Poland have both drifted from democratic values. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared the need to part from the notion that people are “free to do anything that does not violate another person’s freedom.”
Italy has also experienced a tense relationship with the EU, including a row over how the anti-establishment government spends its money and handles immigration.
If the bloc’s leadership can satisfy the needs of all member nations while upholding the EU’s core principles laid out in the Lisbon Treaty—namely “inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”—only then is a tighter knit Europe possible.
Despite the need for votes to get the absolute majority, Ms. von der Leyen did insist that her European Commission would continue to be tough on countries like Poland and Hungary.
“There can be no compromise when it comes to respecting the rule of law. There never will be. I will ensure that we use our full and comprehensive toolbox at European level,” she said.
The incoming president comes from a political family and is the daughter of a former governor of her home state of Lower Saxony, Ernst Albrecht. She has been a deputy leader of Ms. Merkel’s party since 2010.
Still, Ms. von der Leyen faces a difficult start as she will have to battle the widespread mistrust as a result of the selection process. She will have to quickly make progress on a number of problems on the continent.
This is precisely what she plans to do in her new written agenda for Europe. “In its 24 pages, she describes the kinds of policies she wants to pursue in Europe over the coming years,” Der Spiegel reported. “‘This is my program,’ she says, proud of what she has accomplished in about two weeks.”
It covers everything from how to handle refugees, agricultural budgets and climate to the administration’s stance on Eastern Europe.
“As a defense minister, she took a clear position against Russia, fought for higher military expenditures and made sure that the Bundeswehr [German army] had a presence in Poland and Lithuania,” the magazine reported. “Now, she is trying to make use of the sympathies she earned in Eastern Europe.”
She even presented Brexit as an opportunity for European unity. Shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, she said as defense minister that Brexit offered the bloc the path to foster greater military cooperation.
“Britain consistently blocked everything that had Europe written on it,” Ms. von der Leyen said. She argued that closer military ties between member states could help ease the frustration many voters feel about the EU’s inability to tackle major issues.
The UK’s new prime minister Boris Johnson has pledged to deliver Brexit with or without a deal. Ms. von der Leyen acknowledged the “challenging times ahead of us” but said “I think it is very important to build up a strong and a good working relation because we have the duty to deliver something that is good for people in Europe and in the United Kingdom.”
She “said she is willing to grant the UK another extension to Brexit talks, if London comes up with good reasons,” according to BBC.
Ultimately, her policies are guided by her desire to establish greater European unity, a notion likely the result of her diverse upbringing.
“I always wanted to come back to my roots,” Ms. von der Leyen said, geographically because she was born in Brussels, and politically since she came from a pro-European family where her father already held a high-level EU position.
“I come from a family that has a European history,” she said.
Ms. von der Leyen, 60, spent her early years in the Belgian capital and speaks fluent English and French, having studied at the London School of Economics in the 1970s. She also lived in Stanford, California, from 1992 to 1996, where two of her seven children were born.
She was long viewed as a potential successor to Ms. Merkel, but has had a tough tenure at the head of the notoriously difficult defense ministry and had long since faded out of contention by the time Ms. Merkel stepped down last year as leader of her center-right Christian Democratic Union party.
Still, Ms. von der Leyen, a medical doctor, played a significant role in modernizing the image of her party during the Merkel years. As minister for families in Ms. Merkel’s first cabinet from 2005 to 2009, she introduced benefits encouraging fathers to look after their young children.
She then served as labor minister until 2013, when she became Germany’s first female defense minister.
Pushing for gender equality will mark her next five years as well, she said. She only got the job, she said, “thanks to all the men and women who have broken down barriers and defied convention.”
Her ability to succeed on these issues and bring Europe together depends on her working relationship with the next leader of the council.
The European Council comprises heads of state of each member nation in the EU. The body sets legislative priorities for the commission, but it cannot pass laws itself.
Charles Michel is Belgium’s youngest prime minister since 1845. He was elected at age 38 in 2014.
He is the second Belgian to hold the office of council president, following Herman Van Rompuy who was the first to hold the office in 2007. His father, Louis Michel, was a European commissioner and is currently a member of the European Parliament.
The quality most looked for in a council president is “the ability to be a builder of compromise and the ideal profile is that of these Belgian prime ministers who are skilled, shrewd,” former French ambassador to the EU, Pierre Sellal, said according to Agence France-Presse.
Mr. Michel proved his ability to compromise. He leads the French-speaking liberal party (MR), which represents only 25 percent of the French-speaking population in the country. He was successful in being elected as prime minister after his party made a coalition with the right-wing nationalist N-VA party and another Flemish party.
It was seen as a “kamikaze” coalition that would not last long before crashing.
“But the tenacious Michel, a strong believer in compromise, managed to lead this team for more than four years, boasting of creating more than 230,000 jobs after a raft of economic reforms,” AFP reported.
“The fragile coalition that included two other Flemish parties finally did collapse in December 2018 when the N-VA refused to back the UN migration pact in the run-up to elections. Michel has stayed on as a caretaker premier ever since.”
Yet his fluency in English and Dutch, a rare attribute among Francophone Belgian politicians, as well as many other multicultural attributes may be just the right complement to Ms. von der Leyen’s agenda of unity for the continent.
At least in theory.
“Russia is an old enemy and a threat,” Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said only months ago. He has also branded U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy on Venezuela as “cowboy,” and called EU foreign policy meetings a “valley of tears.”
Now he is the face of relations between Europe and Russia, the U.S. and the rest of the world. Mr. Borrell, 72, was selected to become the spokesperson for the EU’s foreign policy and negotiations with other nations.
The attack on Russia “caused embarrassment to Fernando Valderrama, the Spanish ambassador in Russia, who was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow to discuss the ‘unfriendly’ statement,” Euronews reported.
Including fixing this, Mr. Borrell faces a daunting set of tasks as the EU’s new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, which he will take over from Federica Mogherini in November.
Financial Times listed five challenges the foreign policy chief faces in his new post:
Iran—“The EU is scrambling to save the landmark international nuclear accord with Tehran after the US pulled out and reimposed sanctions.”
Balkans—“Tensions between Serbia and its former province Kosovo have been rising despite EU efforts to mediate.”
Venezuela—“President Nicolas Maduro has hung on to power even though many EU countries have backed his rival Juan Guaido as interim leader.”
China—“EU policy has grown notably more hawkish in areas ranging from digital security to market access for European companies.”
U.S. relations—“President Donald Trump has at times been openly hostile to the EU and there have been transatlantic clashes over areas ranging from trade to bloc joint military projects.”
Though there is no speculation on how Mr. Borrell may specifically tackle these issues, his current approach may offer some clues: “He is vocal and not afraid of saying what he thinks,” Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo, stated to Financial Times. “Some people are really concerned that he is a free spirit and that he has such a candid approach in a position where you need diplomacy.”
But with U.S. President Trump and Britain’s Prime Minister Johnson leading the free world—of which the EU is a part—a candid approach may suit the times.
In what Project Syndicate labeled an “age of great-power politics,” in which “great-power competition is shunting aside the international rules-based order,” the EU has “an opportunity to relaunch its foreign policy” through Mr. Borrell.
History reveals that uniting 28 member nations—most having its own official language—and 508 million people (the world’s third largest population behind China and India) is elusive. Can a group of leaders so diverse themselves help President von der Leyen’s goal of a true United States of Europe?
During a visit with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris—her first visit to another country since being selected for office—Ms. von der Leyen expressed that she is “working for an ambitious Europe.”
“You embody this new Europe,” President Macron said. “Forty years after the first woman was elected president of the European Parliament, we now have the first woman to preside over the European Commission. It shows that Europe…wants to ‘regenerate itself.’”
If the union—including each member nation’s leaders and citizens—really does want to regenerate itself, prepare to see a continent in five years as unexpectedly different as the new team leading it.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.