New EU team smashes glass ceiling but new challenges loom

Brussels – EU leaders have broken the glass ceiling in naming two women to the bloc’s top jobs but questions remain over whether they and their two male colleagues can rise to the challenges ahead, analysts say.

The team EU leaders proposed on Tuesday after a bitter three-day summit may have no more luck than the last one in healing the 28-nation bloc’s east-west split, they said.

And Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister nominated to head the powerful European Commission, could even be rejected by the European Parliament, analysts added.

“It makes a nice poster but carries many unknowns for European policy, and gender equality trumped geographic balance,” said Sebastien Maillard, who heads the thinktank Notre Europe.

Historic powers Germany and France got the nod for the key jobs, with von der Leyen running the Commission and France’s Christine Lagarde, the current IMF chief, heading the European Central Bank.

The pair, who hew to the centre-right, will be the first women to ever hold such posts.

Rounding out the team are Belgium’s liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel, named European Council president, and Spanish socialist Josep Borell, tipped for foreign policy chief.

The von der Leyen and Borrell nominations are “good news for those wanting to strengthen Brussels’ role in the world,” tweeted Nathalie Tocci, an advisor for outgoing diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini of Italy.

Von der Leyen has solid geostrategic experience at a time when Europe faces threats from Russia, terrorism and cyber attacks, analysts said.

“She will focus on issues that are extremely important for the future of the EU,” said Rosa Balfour, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“That is the economy, the international impact of the European economy and security,” Balfour said.

 

– ‘Deeply disappointed’ –

 

Jonathan Faull, a former senior administrator at the European Commission, told AFP there is a risk von der Leyen may not be endorsed by the European Parliament.

Von der Leyen must still convince the European Parliament, which she visited on Wednesday, to approve her in the role, but it is not immediately clear whether she will have the backing of the four main political groups in the assembly.

The election Wednesday of Italian David Sassoli as president of the European Parliament may heal the wounds of his fellow Social Democrats, who form the second biggest bloc in the assembly with 154 votes.

The Social Democrats were “deeply disappointed” when Dutchman Frans Timmermans was dropped as candidate for the Commission job amid opposition from eastern and other countries.

Many in the biggest parliamentary group, the European People’s Party, were also disappointed when its German leader Manfred Weber was dropped.

French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders said he did not have the required experience for the Commission job.

The European Parliament “screams but in the end it quiets down,” an MEP re-elected to a third term told AFP. “But who knows?”

Von der Leyen faces a vote in the assembly during a session from July 15-18. But it could be postponed until September to guarantee her a majority.

Another source of concern is whether she will even retain the support of the fragile coalition of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was forced to abstain when the other leaders backed von der Leyen.

It is also not known how the eastern EU countries will work with the rest of the bloc after they failed to get any of the key jobs.

Eastern countries in the last few years rejected EU schemes to admit asylum-seekers and clashed over policies to fight climate change as they rely heavily on coal.

They also came under fire from the Commission, particularly from Timmermans, and the European Parliament for allegedly undermining the independence of their courts and violating EU norms they signed up to.

Balfour voiced concern the new team will not take a revolutionary approach to tackling the climate crisis because of its centre-right tilt.

She said it is “not part of their DNA” to make the massive public investments needed to help average people adapt to a greener economy.

By Christian Spillmann and Lachlan Carmichael