Saturday 24 August 2019

Europe's election of first female president of the Commission is a political victory for Ireland

Political victory for Ireland and Varadkar ahead of fresh Brexit talks with new UK prime minister

Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Hugh O'Connell in Brussels

EU leaders last night backed Germany's Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen to become the first female president of the European Commission.

The nomination of Ms Von der Leyen is a political victory for Ireland and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ahead of fresh Brexit talks with the new UK prime minister in the coming weeks.

Ms Von der Leyen, who is little known outside Germany, is part of the same political family as Fine Gael, the European People's Party, and was described by Mr Varadkar as "somebody who is part of a group of people who have always stood by Ireland through these issues".

As he left the Brussels summit last night, the Taoiseach said: "I am confident that the solidarity we've had through [outgoing EC president] Jean-Claude Juncker will continue under the new commission president."

The Taoiseach also hailed EU leaders' decision to install Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel as the new president of the European Council. He will succeed Donald Tusk.

"Charles Michel has been sitting around the council table with me for over two years and he was there before that. He is a Belgian prime minister, really understands Brexit issues because they are among the most affected by it, they're a neighbouring country of Britain as well," Mr Varadkar said.

Top banker: IMF chief Christine Lagarde is to be new ECB president. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo
Top banker: IMF chief Christine Lagarde is to be new ECB president. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

EU leaders also agreed to nominate International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister, as the new president of the European Central Bank.

Mr Varadkar claimed Ms Lagarde would continue the policies of outgoing ECB chief Mario Draghi by keeping interest rates low.

EU leaders also agreed to nominate Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell to be the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, the bloc's top diplomat.

Ms Von der Leyen must secure the backing of the European Parliament today.

There were indications last night that her elevation had caused domestic political issues for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She abstained from the decision amid disquiet from her socialist coalition partners in Germany.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged that while it was "a tricky one" for Ms Merkel, having spoken to her he believed "there would be no issues for the German government".

It was a bruising summit for the long-serving chancellor, whose original proposal to nominate Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans for the Commission presidency was shot down on Sunday night amid opposition within the EPP, whose own candidate Manfred Weber, a member of Merkel's sister party, also fell by the wayside.

But there was some consolation for Ms Merkel in that her party colleague in the Christian Democrats and longtime ally Ms Von der Leyen is set for the top job.

Mr Varadkar was among those to insist the EPP should not give up on holding the Commission presidency despite Mr Weber's defeat.

The German MEP's consolation will be to serve as European Parliament president for two and a half years.

This will come as a disappointment to Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness, who has long been linked to the European Parliament presidency.

The developments last night came after talks in Brussels were deadlocked for much of the last three days in what proved to be one of the longest EU summits in history.

Outgoing Council president Mr Tusk engaged in lengthy negotiations with various EU leaders over the course of Sunday evening, all day Monday and early yesterday in a bid to break the impasse.

The Taoiseach said there had been different interpretations of what the Spitzenkandidat system used for the European elections last month meant.

With none of the parliament's groupings commanding a majority, none of their candidates were ultimately successful in being nominated for Commission presidency.

"It was cast aside really because none of the Spitzkanditaten could command a majority either in the Council or the Parliament and unfortunately when you have inconclusive elections that's what happens," Mr Varadkar said.

"We'll have to review that system and see how it works in four or five years' time."

Irish Independent

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