• Thursday, February 29, 2024
businessday logo


EU leaders closing in on deal for top jobs at Commission and ECB

eu leaders

European leaders are closing in on a deal to place two women in the EU’s most important jobs, backing Ursula von der Leyen to be president of the European Commission and Christine Lagarde to lead the European Central Bank.

On the third day of a gruelling summit in Brussels, France and Germany secured broad support for a package based around Ms von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, and Ms Lagarde, the former French finance minister who is now head of the IMF.

The suggested deal remains under intense negotiation and could unravel over the coming hours. Some centre-left leaders remain unconvinced — both Ms Lagarde and Ms von der Leyen are from the EU’s centre-right party grouping — and there are doubts over who should take the presidency of the European Parliament, according to several senior diplomats involved in talks.

Ms Lagarde’s formal nomination is expected to be deferred until other elements of the package are confirmed by the European Parliament.

The idea to propose Ms von der Leyen came from Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, during a chaotic period of the negotiation on Monday when several combinations of names failed to secure support.

Ms von der Leyen is a longstanding ally of Angela Merkel and the only minister to have served in every cabinet since Germany’s chancellor took office more than 13 years ago.

Her nomination to replace Jean-Claude Juncker at the Commission would ensure the centre-right European People’s party would retain the most coveted post in Brussels. Ms von der Leyen would be the first German to head the institution in half a century.

Arriving at the summit on Tuesday morning, Ms Merkel said it was time for “new creativity”. “Everyone has to understand that they have to move a little bit. And I say everyone. Then there is indeed a chance,” she said.

Several senior officials attending the summit said Ms Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, was linked to Ms von der Leyen as part of the deal between Paris and Berlin.

But the replacement for Mario Draghi at the ECB is not expected to be formally announced at the same time, even if a deal is reached at Tuesday’s summit. One diplomat said the ECB nomination would be deferred until the European Parliament had voted to approve the proposed nominee for the Commission.

Other parts of the compromise envisaged are more open to negotiation. Charles Michel, Belgium’s liberal prime minister, is under consideration as the next European Council president, while Josep Borrell, Spain’s foreign minister, is tipped to become the EU’s foreign policy chief. However, both roles are still contested.

Promises are also being sought regarding Ms von der Leyen’s deputies at the commission. Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager, the lead candidates for the socialists and liberals in May’s election, are expected to be rewarded with jobs as vice-presidents.

The position of European Parliament president would be a separate but related part of the compromise, which needs the approval of political groups in Strasbourg.

Names under consideration include Sergei Stanishev, the Bulgarian socialist; Manfred Weber, the German MEP who led the EPP election campaign; and Ska Keller, the German Green.

One senior EU diplomat said that Ms von der Leyen’s appointment was a “way out” for Ms Merkel, who had come in for criticism from within her own party for considering handing the commission presidency to the centre-left.

Her failure to win backing for Mr Weber as Commission president had left her with “domestic problems”, the diplomat said, noting this would be transformed by securing the position for Ms von der Leyen and potentially also a senior post for Mr Weber.

“Now to come up with two Germans from the negotiations, who can say that Merkel is weak?” the diplomat said.
Ms von der Leyen was born and spent much of her childhood in Brussels, where her father was a senior European Economic Community official. She worked as a gynaecologist before becoming family minister under Ms Merkel, switching later to the labour and then defence portfolios.

Ms Lagarde does not have a background in central banking but served as France’s finance minister during the 2008 financial crash and the early years of the eurozone debt crisis.

Prior to that, she had a highly successful career as a competition lawyer, including as chairman of Baker & McKenzie. She has led the IMF since 2011.