The EU’s new leadership team does not mean a new approach to Brexit

Ursula von der Leyen and her fellow nominees are determined to preserve the red lines set by Brussels. 

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White smoke came from Brussels late on Tuesday night: after three days of talks and a very belated “lunch” (which began at 4pm and ended at 7pm), European leaders voted almost unanimously to agree the nominations for the EU’s pre-eminent posts. 

The German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, is the union’s new star: the Christian Democrat has been nominated as the next president of the EU Commission, replacing the outgoing Jean-Claude Juncker. Also nominated are the liberal Belgium prime minister Charles Michel (who would replace Donald Tusk as EU Council president), current IMF director and former French finance minister Christine Lagarde (as head of the European Central Bank) and current Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell (as EU foreign policy chief). 

The European Parliament, which started its new term on Tuesday, will now vote to confirm these nominations. If approved, von der Leyen, a staunch Merkel ally, will become the first woman to lead the European Commission. Indeed, for the first time in history, women will hold two of the highest-ranking EU jobs and, in 2019, it’s past time that a woman’s portrait joined the dozens of framed photos of former male leaders on the walls of the Berlaymont. 

History is better made later than never: EU leaders have finally demonstrated their commitment to gender-balanced nominations — which is never certain in the multiple bilateral talks, trade-offs and compromises that any EU appointment entails. (That both women have been involved in political scandals, von der Leyen in a nepotism case and Lagarde in an embezzlement trial, could, however, prompt cynicism among Europeans.) 

Von der Leyen was no one’s obvious choice, and her name only entered the frame on Monday, gradually easing out those of Manfred Weber, Franz Timmermans, Margrethe Vestager and Michel Barnier. The first woman to become Germany’s defence minister in 2013, von der Leyen, 60, is the candidate of compromise: she is a politician of the centre-right European People’s Party parliamentary group without being the lead candidate (Weber, who Angela Merkel supported but Emmanuel Macron vetoed), is German but speaks fluent English and French and, in a remarkably precocious PR move, had the good taste to be born in Brussels, where she spent the first 13 years of her life. (Von der Leyen is also a London School of Economics graduate, a former US resident, a trained medical doctor and the mother of seven children.) 

Her nomination means that the Spitzenkandidaten, or “lead candidate” system, in which the leader of the parliamentary group that wins the European elections (in the case the EPP’s Weber) secures the EU Commission presidency, is now defunct. 

This is good news for the liberals of Renew Europe, and among them French president Macron, who vocally opposed the system. It’s less good news for the European Parliament, which has consistently called for the Spitzenkandidaten system to be respected — it was originally introduced as a democratic means of choosing the Commission president based on European election results and its demise reduces MEPs’ power over future nominations. 

The European Parliament could still refuse to approve the nominations. In view of the Socialists’ anger over the failure of their candidate, Franz Timmermans (who the “Visegrád Group” — Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — openly boasted of blocking), this possibility should not be dismissed. Significantly, Angela Merkel was the only EU leader to abstain last night — as close as she is to von der Leyen, the German Chancellor couldn’t afford to support a non-”Spitzen” candidate and alienate the European Parliament and CDU allies. The parliament will vote on whether to approve the nominations in the week of 15 July after it elects its own president this week. 

At present, von der Leyen is on course to succeed Juncker. In the UK, the new Conservative leadership should expect very little change in the EU’s conduct of the Brexit negotiations. Von der Leyen has been sharply  critical of the Brexiteers, once describing the EU referendum campaign as “a burst bubble of hollow promises”. She has emphasised that Brexit is “a loss for everyone” and has warned that a no-deal scenario would be “the worst possible start” to the future EU-UK relationship. 

As  von der Leyen’s nomination was announced on Tuesday night, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar positively welcomed the news, remarking that he was “confident” that she would demonstrate the same solidarity with Ireland as Juncker. Varadkar similarly praised Michel’s appointment as EU Council president, stating that he “understands Brexit”. 

Both von der Leyen and Michel are new players in the Brexit negotiations but the EU’s red lines remain the same — and that includes the Irish border. In a 2017 BBC interview, the German defence minister made it clear that the UK would not be permitted to cherry-pick “bits and pieces” of EU membership. On the Brexit “divorce bill”, von der Leyen similarly emphasised: “you have to meet the contract”. Expect the same firmness if she ascends to the helm. 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.