Brussels Hustle: Europe gets new leaders.
It’s final; with a few exceptions, the European Union’s top jobs have been confirmed, leaving us all wondering: who are the leaders that will decide on Europe’s future over the next five years? After many of us participated in the second-largest democratic elections in the world last month, what can we expect from them?
— EUROPEAN COMMISSION
Germany’s center-right defense minister Ursula von der Leyen was nominated to lead the European Commission, the EU’s most important institution. She will be the first woman to ever do so (that is, if she wins the support of a majority of MEPs). To our big surprise, Von der Leyen believes in a “United States of Europe,” which is easier said than done in today’s fractured political climate. She is a staunch ally of Angela Merkel and close to French President Emmanuel Macron. The BBC called her a “conservative europhile.”
— EUROPEAN CENTRAL BANK
Among other things, the ECB sets inflation rates and controls spending and lending in the eurozone. For the coming term, it will be led by Christine Lagarde, the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund who recently rolled her eyes at Ivanka Trump in a video that we can’t stop watching. Lagarde is known as a champion for female empowerment, and is also close to Macron (“Manu” seems to be the big winner of these negotiations). As head of the IMF she built a strong relationship with Germany, leaving us wondering whether she could she could spell the return of the Franco-German axis?
— EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
Socialist MEP David Sassoli made an unexpected last-minute jump to lead the EU’s democratic body. Besides being a former journalist (kudos to him), he also has a clear vision for Europe: "We need to strengthen our capacity to play a leading role in democracy," he said. He is also keen on reforming the EU’s policies for asylum seekers. "You can't continue to kick this down the road. We don't want citizens asking 'where's Europe' every time an emergency happens."
— EUROPEAN COUNCIL
Charles Michel, the current prime minister of Belgium, will head the institution, which unites the 28 heads of state (one from each country) and their ministers and sets out the overall political direction and priorities of the bloc. At 43, he is among the youngest European leaders.
The nominations come after weeks of painstaking negotiations which, after several failed attempts to choose candidates, forced the member countries to abandon the Spitzenkandidaten process (which has strong support in the European Parliament, because it forces national leaders to choose someone from the largest elected political families).
While democracy seems to have suffered a blow, it was a big win for gender parity. Yet, while Donald Tusk boasted of “perfect gender parity”, saying “Europe is, after all, a woman,” both Lagarde and von der Leyen are center-right conservatives, and are unlikely to carry out far-reaching feminist reforms.
Similarly, a progressive alliance between Spain, Germany and France suffered a blow when the Visegrad countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia) plus Italy and Ireland vetoed the nomination of social democratic candidate Frans Timmermans over his liberal values and previous criticism of populist governments which undermine the independence of their judiciary. Speaking on behalf of the bloc, Czech prime minister Andrej Babis said Timmermans would be “...unacceptable for us, it would be a total catastrophe.”
Interested in knowing more about how power works in the EU? In ‘Capital Letters’, Elias Kuhn, our “insider in Brussels” shares his perspective and personal experiences from inside the European Commission, where he works.
“Talk of longevity likens the EU to an empire with a constitutional monarchy, which is nonsense. No one in Brussels has this ambition, despite Nigel or Boris’ insinuations to the contrary.”
Business as usual?
But things could be worse. For all the political differences between the top nominees, the EU’s top jobs appear to have gone to experienced, competent and reasonable leaders. That’s not a bad outcome after an election that saw the largest number of demagogues, charlatans and nationalists elected into the Parliament, and which some predicted would normalize far-right extremism and anti-democratic discourse. It also sends a strong message that Europe can set an example in terms of gender parity.
Judging by who will steer the EU forward in the next five years, we will most likely see business as usual, with Old Europe reigning (through German, French, Spanish, Belgian and Italian leaders) despite all the recent talk of “regional balance.”
To some, that may be enough to sigh a breath of relief.