Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 15 October 2019

Women given top EU jobs for the first time

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen to replace Jean-Claude Juncker and Christine Lagarde to lead the European Central Bank

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was unexpectedly put forward as candidate for the European Commission president. The European Parliament has to approve the candidates for the four EU top jobs. EPA
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was unexpectedly put forward as candidate for the European Commission president. The European Parliament has to approve the candidates for the four EU top jobs. EPA

Two women have broken through the glass ceiling to take the top EU positions for the first time in the bloc's history.

After three days of talks, leaders decided on German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission and backed Christine Lagarde to lead the European Central Bank.

Before the marathon negotiations in Brussels, two men had been tipped as the favourites.

The 28 member states were at loggerheads as names came and went. Discussions faltered over the weekend and 20 hours of talks on Monday resulted in a stalemate.

By Tuesday the favourites to replace Mr Juncker as the bloc’s most prominent bureaucrat, Dutchman Frans Timmermans and Germany’s Manfred Weber, had been dismissed.

A close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ms von der Leyen, 60, has the respect of many but has faced heavy criticism at home in her ministerial role.

While some critics see her presidential nomination as a concession to appease warring factions, others consider it a breath of fresh air.

“Ursula von der Leyen has Europe in her genes," said Lord Adonis, a Labour member of Britain's upper house.

"Her father was one of the first EU officials. She was born and raised in Brussels and she speaks German, French and English.

"Her career is an essay in modern Europe and democratic Germany. Von der Leyen is not a compromise candidate but a new and strong one.

"There’s a lot to be said for Angela Merkel’s protege, one of the most successful ministers in the most successful government of the strongest and most successful state in modern Europe.”

Director of the European Centre at Cambridge University, Baroness Dr Julie Smith, said that while the nominated candidates were certainly a compromise, the outcome was extraordinary and interesting times lay ahead.

“She broke through the glass ceiling by becoming Germany’s defence minister and now she’s done it again," Dr Smith said.

"It is absolutely extraordinary that two women who were outsiders in the process, because of their experience and trailblazing, have taken these positions.

“There has been an absolute compromise to come to this sort of agreement. The fact they have had two separate sets of meetings demonstrates how difficult it has been for them to agree.

“Von der Leyen is an unknown quantity. The past 20 years we have had commission presidents who are former prime ministers and this time it is a step change in them allowing this.

"I think someone coming in without the baggage of having been a prime minister might be quite interesting. It really is quite an extraordinary story going from German defence minister to EU president overnight.”

The final decision on the candidates rests on the approval of MEPs, whose acceptance is needed to confirm Ms von der Leyens' position as commission chief.

Dr Smith warned that there might still be turbulent times ahead in winning the approval of members because Ms von der Leyen was not the lead candidate put forward initially.

Mr Weber, the leader of the European People's Party, had been chosen as the lead candidate but he faced tough opposition from France’s President Macron, who said his lack of experience was a stumbling block.

“I think there is going to be some inter-institutional impasse,” Dr Smith added.

Ms von der Leyen visited the European Parliament on Wednesday to begin courting members for their approval.

German economist Henrik Enderlein, president and professor of political economy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said her main drawback was not being the first choice, or "spitzenkandidatin".

“Ursula von der Leyen is a strong choice for Presidency," Prof Enderlein tweeted. "She has a much better understanding of Europe than most national politicians.

"Her track record in various difficult government positions is good. She is an impressive European and will impress many Europeans."

Ms von der Leyen’s appointment has also sparked new tension within Mrs Merkel's fragile coalition and some of her homeland politicians have called for members to reject her.

Minutes after EU leaders announced their names for the bloc's top jobs, Mrs Merkel's junior coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democratic Party, rejected it.

The party's trio of interim leaders said Ms von der Leyen "never stood for elections, and therefore is not convincing".

They claimed that installing her as European Commission President would make an absurd mockery of the attempt to democratise the EU.

The leader of Mrs Merkel's Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union, wanted Mr Weber to take the role.

"It leaves a bitter taste that democracy lost and back-room dealings won,” Markus Soeder told the news agency DPA.

On Wednesday, European members elected Italian social democrat David Sassoli, 63, as the new European Parliament president, filling the final top EU job.

The Social Democrats had put him forward after criticising the agreements reached on the candidates for the top roles.

They had wanted the top commission spot to go to their leading candidate, Mr Timmermans.

On Tuesday, the leaders also named Charles Michel, 43, the acting Belgian prime minister, as president of the European Council, replacing Donald Tusk.

They proposed Josep Borrell, 72, a former Spanish foreign minister, as the new foreign policy chief to replace Federica Mogherini.

Updated: July 4, 2019 05:28 PM

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