Late on 2 July the European Council reached agreement on nominations and appointments for the EU’s ‘top jobs’: presidents of the Commission, European Council and European Central Bank (ECB) and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The European Parliament (EP) elected a new president on 3 July.
The House of Commons Library has already produced a detailed explanation of the appointment and nominations processes. This Insight will examine the appointees and nominees to emerge from those processes.
The appointees and nominees
Two women and three men were chosen or nominated for the posts: Ursula von der Leyen for Commission President and Christine Lagarde for the ECB; Charles Michel for European Council President, Josep Borrell for High Representative and David-Maria Sassoli for EP President. This is a better gender balance than ever before.
Geographically the concentration of candidates in ‘old Europe’ has been criticised. There are no representatives from Central or Eastern Europe. EU leaders are reported to support Slovakia’s Maros Sefcovic, as well as unsuccessful presidential candidates Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager, for vice-president posts (there are six in all).
European Commission President
Ursula von der Leyen (60) studied economics (including at LSE), then trained as a medical doctor. She was German minister of labour and social affairs (2009 – 2013) and has been defence minister since 2013.
Her nomination could be controversial for the EP because Member States did not adhere to the Spitzenkandidaten process. If confirmed by the EP, she will take over from Jean-Claude Juncker on 1 November for a five-year term (renewable).
Ursula von der Leyen is an EU federalist. She represents continuity with
Jean-Claude Juncker on Brexit. She is on the record as stating that Brexit meant losses for all Member States. She described events since the UK referendum as a “burst bubble of hollow promises … inflated by populists”. She believes a no-deal Brexit would be the “worst possible start” to the close future EU-UK relationship Germany wanted, and she is therefore likely to agree to a further Article 50 extension if asked.
But she has also taken a tough line on Brexit concessions, particularly over the Irish backstop and defending the integrity of the Single Market.
European Council President
Charles Michel (43) has been Belgium’s prime minister since 2014 (since December 2018 as caretaker PM). He is a lawyer and experienced in handling difficult ruling coalitions in Belgium. Donald Tusk said he would be: “ideal for building consensus among member states”. The EUObserver reported: “Belgian political insiders characterise Michel as not being a visionary, but a dealmaker – a quality you cannot do without if you want to lead a complicated country like Belgium”.
He will replace Donald Tusk on 1 December 2019 for a two-and-a-half year term (renewable once).
According to The Times Charles Michel opposed the Brexit extension to 31 October because he thought this would take the pressure off the UK Parliament to pass the 2018 Withdrawal Agreement.
European Parliament President
The Italian former journalist and EP vice-president, David Sassoli (63), is a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Group. He replaced Antonio Tajani on 3 July. His term of office will be for two-and-a-half years, after which the EP Presidency will be handed over to a member of the centre-right EPP group.
In his acceptance speech David Sassoli spoke of the EU’s need to “reduce the distance” between the institutions and citizens of Europe. He described Brexit as “painful”, but added that only European citizens “are able to determine their history”, and that negotiations with the UK should be carried out with “good sense and a spirit of dialogue and friendship”.
European Central Bank President
Christine Lagarde (63) is a lawyer. She was the economy, finance and industry minister in France 2007 – 2011. Since 2011 she has been Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.
The President is appointed “from among persons of recognised standing and professional experience in monetary or banking matters” (Article 283 TFEU). The fact that Christine Lagarde is not an economist or a banker has raised questions about her suitability, but she appears to have EU support. The European Council decides by qualified majority on the basis of a Council recommendation, after consulting the EP and the ECB’s Governing Council.
If approved, she will succeed Mario Draghi on 1 November 2019 for a term of eight years.
Christine Lagarde consistently emphasises the negative impact of Brexit on the UK economy: “Whether it ends well, whether there is a smooth exit given by customs unions as predicated by some, or whether it’s as a result of a brutal exit […] without extension of notice, it’s not going to be as good as it is now”. Brexit would also affect other EU states to “varying degrees”.
In April she expressed sympathy with British businesses facing the uncertainty of a no-deal Brexit, saying that “even with the contingency plans in place, they would face disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit and may have to be resigned to taking a hit to their balance sheets and possibly market share”.
High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Josep Borrell (72) is Spanish foreign minister in the Socialist Government and was EP President 2004 – 2007. He trained in aeronautical engineering, economics and mathematics.
If approved by the EP, he will replace Federica Mogherini on 1 November.
As foreign minister Josep Borrell has taken a tough line on Brexit and opposed concessions for the UK. In May 2019 he said that he did not care whether the UK left the EU – although he did not want a disorderly Brexit. However, he was also behind the Spanish Government adopting unilateral measures to protect the rights of Britons in Spain in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The impact of the changes on Brexit
Outgoing European Council President Donald Tusk does not believe the changes will lead to any new Brexit concessions: “I am absolutely sure that the new leaders of our institutions will be as consistent as we are today when it comes to the withdrawal agreement and our readiness to discuss our future relationship with the UK”.
- How are the EU’s top jobs chosen?, House of Commons Library
- Political Group formation in the European Parliament, House of Commons Library
- European Parliament elections 2019: results and analysis, House of Commons Library
About the author: Vaughne Miller is head of the International Affairs and Defence research section at the House of Commons Library.
Images: David Maria Sassoli by Francesca Minonne; Ursula von der-Leyen by Sandro Halank; Charles Michel by Барвенковский; Christine_Lagarde by Magnus Manske; and Josep Borrell by Up and Go.