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26 June 2024

The new Europe chooses its leaders

Ursula von der Leyen, Kaja Kallas and António Costa have been selected for the bloc’s top jobs.

By Bruno Maçães

EU leaders will make their top appointments for the next institutional cycle in Brussels on 27 and 28 June. The process has been surprisingly straightforward, in vivid contrast to the sense of transformation and turmoil being felt across the continent following the European parliamentary election earlier this month. While Paris burns, Brussels chills. There will be no revolution and news of the advance of the hard right inside EU institutions seems distinctly exaggerated.

Let’s start with the names. Ursula von der Leyen will be renominated as president of the European Commission, but will have to be confirmed by the parliament in July. António Costa, the former socialist Portuguese prime minister, who resigned amid a corruption scandal, will replace Charles Michel as president of the European Council. Finally, the Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas will take Josep Borrell’s place as high representative of the Union for foreign policy.

On paper, these three names are a perfect smorgasbord of European diversity and democratic inclusiveness. One man, two women. One conservative, one liberal, one socialist – but all respectful of different viewpoints. One woman from Europe’s centre: Von der Leyen is German but was born in Ixelles in Brussels, a neighbourhood favoured by eurocrats that could only be more emblematic of the heart of the EU if she were born in the European Commission’s Berlaymont building itself. One man from the south: even if Portugal is more Atlantic than Mediterranean, it is definitely the south. Meanwhile, Kallas represents both the north and the east, a role Estonians are used to.

Von der Leyen is the most widely accepted, a consequence of her status as incumbent, but even her staunchest supporters in the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) are cautious about that July vote in parliament. The three party groups in the European Parliament supporting her make up a sizeable majority, but there will be dissenters within them, so she could potentially lose the confirmation vote, which cannot be repeated. Siegfried Mureşan, a vice-president of the EPP, told me this was always the party’s main concern: not the elections, the negotiations between the different parties or the support for Von der Leyen among heads of government, but that July vote in parliament. It’s one moment, one opportunity. 

This is where the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni will play a role: her votes could put Von der Leyen safely over the threshold. As a kingmaker, she could then expect to influence how the Commission president will govern over the next cycle. It’s no secret that Von der Leyen will move to the right when it comes to migration and the energy transition, but I would see this as a return of the Christian Democratic matrix rather than the rise of the hard right’s influence.

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The same step change to the right may be forced on Costa. The EPP agrees that the post of president of the European Council should go to the Socialists, who have themselves opted for Costa as their champion, but there is some grumbling that the Portuguese could be too soft on migration, a vulnerability the hard right could exploit five years from now, at the next elections. The solution being considered is to confirm his appointment only for the first half of the cycle. Either way, Costa will be under scrutiny. Does he understand this is a new, more right-leaning Europe? I suspect he will understand everything necessary to stay in post.

As for Kallas, she is the least consensual, but because the package of leaders works as a whole her position is safe. The problem is less her well-known hawkishness or “realism” on Russia – that word is always charged, and depends on the speaker – but her exclusive focus on the Russian threat. Will she understand that there is more to global politics than Russia or will she see everything through that lens? Will she be able to look at the EU’s policy on Iran and China as questions independent of Russia and Ukraine? Will she be able to devote the necessary attention to Africa and Latin America? Will she resist the logic of blocs? Or will Kallas be a new Cold Warrior for a new Cold War?

What do the names mean, if they mean anything beyond the inevitable dance of chairs? Is there a logic? Perhaps this: Christian Democracy is back. The Europe of Adenauer, Andreotti and Schuman is back, but now with a female face. More homogeneous societies, a suspicion of grand transformational projects, including the energy transition, and a nod to family values (the latter a Meloni favourite). And to top it all off: a new Cold War.

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