EU member governments’ surprise nominee for president of the European Union’s executive, Germany’s Ursula Von der Leyen, will seek support in the EU parliament on Wednesday hoping to secure the confirmation that she will need in two weeks’ time.
In a deal done by the 28 member governments on Tuesday after long and fraught negotiations, von der Leyen, a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is due to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and France’s Christine Lagarde will head the European Central Bank.
Leaders hope the decision to put two women at the top of EU decision-making for the first time will send a positive message and repair damage wrought by such a fractious summit, diplomats said.
The discord echoed a wider fracturing of the EU’s political center that was evident in May’s elections to the Strasbourg parliament, which delivered a more fragmented assembly with bigger far-right and far-left contingents.
Von der Leyen’s visit to Strasbourg coincides with the election of the president’s speaker, for which an Italian socialist is frontrunner.
Von der Leyen needs to be confirmed in her new job by an absolute majority of the 751 EU lawmakers.
On paper, she ought to be able to secure those votes comfortably, but she may hit resistance in an assembly aggrieved that EU leaders ignored the lead candidates from the main parliamentary blocs – the “Spitzenkandidaten” – in their horse-trading over top posts.
The socialist and green groupings were particularly upset.
“This backroom stich-up after days of talks is grotesque, it satisfies no one but party power games,” said Greens leader Ska Keller, who is also running for the chamber’s presidency.
The socialists’ leader in the assembly, Spain’s Iratxe Garcia, called the agreement “deeply disappointing”.
They were mostly angered by the rejection by eastern European leaders of socialist Frans Timmermans as Commission head, a move that many saw as retaliation against Timmermans’ accusations of civil rights violations in Hungary and Poland.
Von der Leyen can, however, rely on the support of the main center-right and liberal groupings in the assembly. Another conservative group led by Poland’s ruling PiS party also looks set to back her.
Most Italian lawmakers, although eurosceptic, are also likely to support Von der Leyen, after Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte welcomed the deal on her appointment.
This would give her sufficient votes to be endorsed, even without the backing of the socialists.
The possible election of Italian center-left lawmaker David Sassoli as the president of the European Parliament for the next two-and-half years, which is expected on Wednesday, might also persuade some socialists to back her.
EU leaders had pushed for the election of Bulgaria’s Sergei Stanishev as speaker, but he was rejected by a majority of socialists and conservative deputies. Some officials said the election of a figure chosen by the parliament could help to assuage socialist’s objections to von der Leyen.
The presidency of the EU parliament is regularly split into two 2-1/2-year terms.
Under the deal reached by the EU leaders, and backed by conservatives, the center-right will have the presidency of the parliament in the second half of the five-year legislature.
On paper, Sassoli should have the backing of most socialists, conservatives and liberals, the three largest groupings, although the ballot is secret and some lawmakers may prefer to vote along national lines.
Socialists from Eastern Europe, in particular, favour other candidates and it is not clear whether they will back Sassoli.
While a gender balance has been maintained in choosing the EU’s top posts, the East-West balance has been neglected, with no eastern European designated for a top position.