EU leaders strike deal to give two top jobs to women

AFP
EU leaders on Tuesday struck a hard-fought summit deal to put women in two of the bloc's most important jobs for the first time.
AFP
EU leaders strike deal to give two top jobs to women
AFP

In this file photo taken on June 15, 2019, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen gives a speech during the Day of the German Armed Forces at the air base in Fassberg, northern Germany.

EU leaders on Tuesday struck a hard-fought summit deal to put women in two of the bloc's most important jobs for the first time.

After three days of bitter wrangling, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was named to replace Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the European Commission for the next five years.

Once confirmed, von der Leyen will lead a commission facing a host of challenges, ranging from climate change to disinformation, populism and Brexit. She will be the first German in more than 50 years to hold the position.

Former French finance minister Christine Lagarde, who has led the International Monetary Fund since 2011, is to take charge at the European Central Bank as fears of an economic slowdown in Europe rattle markets.

"She will occupy this new position with great prudence and commitment," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the nomination.

The picks, confirmed by summit host and European Council President Donald Tusk, ended difficult talks that had dragged on since Sunday evening, dogged by division and infighting.

The 60-year-old conservative von der Leyen's name came into the frame after an earlier proposal to name Dutch Social Democrat Frans Timmermans ran into insurmountable opposition.

The package agreed by the 28 EU leaders also sees Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel take over from Tusk at the European Council of member states, while Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell becomes foreign policy chief, replacing Federica Mogherini.

An outspoken political veteran, Borrell takes on the role as Europe seeks to save the Iran nuclear deal, stop Washington-Tehran tensions sliding into full-blown conflict and keep pressure on Russia.

"A strong Spain is back with strength to represent the EU's foreign and defence policy," said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Von der Leyen, a minister for the past 14 years under German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been an advocate for closer EU integration, calling for a "United States of Europe."

Both von der Leyen and Borrell still need the blessing of the European Parliament, and several senior figures in Timmermans' center-left group tweeted their disgruntlement at the proposed ticket.

But the outgoing Juncker tweeted that the "solution we've found is a good one."

"Leyen has extensive experience in defence and social policy. I believe it would be in the parliament's interest to approve this," he said.

Brexit looms

Von der Leyen would take office on November 1 — the day after Britain is currently due to leave the bloc.

Both candidates vying to take over as British prime minister has vowed to leave by that day come what may, so the new commissioner's first task in office could be to mop up the fall out from a messy "no deal" Brexit.

Tusk said he was "absolutely sure" the bloc's new leadership would not change course and offer concessions on the Brexit deal struck.

Von der Leyen had the crucial backing of French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as the support of the Visegrad Four bloc — Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

This saved her from the fate suffered by Timmermans, who was floated by France and Germany but eventually dumped after a marathon 18-hour negotiating session that began on Sunday evening broke up without agreement on Monday.

Weber spins out

Weber, leader of the conservative group in Parliament who long claimed the Commission leadership, officially abandoned the race once the summit decision was made.

According to his entourage, he will even renounce running for the presidency of parliament in a vote on Wednesday.

But von der Leyen is unpopular in Germany and in a sign of Merkel's weak grip on power, the chancellor abstained from backing her defence minister in the final vote at the summit due to opposition from socialists back home.

Deciding the top jobs was complicated by the fragmentation of the EU political landscape in the May elections to the European Parliament.

The center-right EPP and center-left socialist group, the dominant forces in EU politics for years, lost their combined majority in the assembly.

The liberals, which include Macron supporters, are increasingly assertive over the choice of top jobs after they and the Greens made significant gains in the polls.

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