The heads of EU member last night confirmed their preferred candidates for a raft of top jobs, setting the potential future direction of the bloc for the next five years after weeks of frantic negotiations.
Germany’s defence minister Ursula von der Leyen was nominated as the new EU commission president, replacing the outgoing Jean-Claude Juncker.
Von der Leyen was not the only surprising name to be put forward for a top job, with EU leaders backing International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde to take over from Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank.
Lagarde, who has headed up the IMF since 2011, has no direct experience of central banking and faced criticism from the IMF’s watchdog over her role in supporting controversial measures at the height of the eurozone financial crisis. A report found that under her leadership the fund’s conduct “raised issues of accountability and transparency”. She was also found guilty of negligence by a French court over her handling of a fraud case from her time as the French finance minister.
Last September Lagarde, who would be the first woman to run the ECB, appeared to rule herself out of the job, saying: ”No, no, no no, no no . . . I am not interested in any of the European – ECB, Commission jobs, no.”
Yet after she was nominated by EU leaders, she tweeted that she was “honoured” and announced she would step down as the IMF managing director during the confirmation process.
Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets, said : So much for political independence for the ECB – the two top jobs will now be in the hands of two ex-politicians – De Guindos, ex Spanish Finance Minister and Lagarde, ex French Finance minister. The optics are terrible.”
Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel has been nominated to replace Tusk as president of the European Council.
The proposed EU Commission president, von der Leyen, is seen as a keen EU federalist, and in 2011 she called for “a united states of Europe – run along the lines of the federal states of Switzerland, Germany or the USA”.
An ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, von der Leyen emerged as the candidate for the role after the EU leaders rejected a host of other contenders, including current Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans.
Poland and Hungary were opposed to the left-wing Timmermans securing the job following his sustained criticised of those countries for a lack of independence in their judicial systems.
The rejection of Timmermans meant that Merkel had to abstain from voting for von der Leyen as her coalition partners in Germany were unhappy with the choice.
That anger is likely to be reflected in the European Parliament, which has to approve all the nominations.
The selection of von der Leyen marks a departure from the so-called spitzenkandidaten process, whereby the largest parliamentary grouping puts forward its preferred candidate.
German MEP Manfred Weber was the choice of the centre-right European People’s Party, while Timmermans had the backing of the Social Democrats.
With both men eliminated from the process, MEPs may choose to reject von der Leyen on a point of principle.
Speaking after the announcements, outgoing European Council president Donald Tusk said: “I am not a prophet, it is not for me to assess what is the real chance to achieve success in the parliament.”