London, United Kingdom – After a series of marathon negotiations in Brussels, Europe’s national leaders finally came to the realisation late on Tuesday there is a limit to the number of chocolates and mussels any one person can get through and agreed on a series of compromises to nominate the new masters of this continent.
The 28 heads of government had spent days cooped up behind closed doors to hammer out some form of agreement on exactly who should take the European Union‘s top jobs for the coming five years.
A deal hatched at the G20 meeting between France and Germany to support Frans Timmerman, a socialist Dutch diplomat, becoming president of the European Commission, was fiercely opposed both by more conservative-leaning Eastern European national representatives and by centre-right politicians arguing that, as they had increased their share of the seats in the European Parliament in last month’s elections, they deserved to be awarded one of the bloc’s top jobs.
Eventually, an agreement was reached as the boxes of Ferrero Rocher lay empty, and four names were produced: Ursula von der Leyen, Christine Lagarde, Charles Michel and Josep Borrell. But the deal still isn’t completely done. They still have to win the approval of the European Parliament, which was directly elected by the people of Europe in May.
It’s usually a rubber-stamping exercise. But in these days of political chaos in Europe, anything can happen. That said, the four nominees thrashed out by the European Council are still the most likely to take control of the world’s largest trading bloc.
So, who are they?
The German defence minister has served by Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s side for more than a decade and is her most loyal ally. The daughter of a regional prime minister, Ursula von der Leyen was elected to the regional government of Lower Saxony in 2003. The centre-right politician became Germany’s first female defence minister in 2013, but she is not without her critics.
“At the first look, Ursula von der Leyen has a strong international profile and having served in different German governments knows politics and policies in Brussels very well,” Miriam Hartlapp-Zugehor, professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin, told Al Jazeera.
“Her expertise in defence and security issues make her an appealing candidate for France, which is advocating a deepening of integration in this area, as well as many Eastern European governments. And she is a woman – the first ever to take the Commission’s top job. This makes her a suitable candidate to solve the conflicts in the Brussels negotiations.
“However, this does not render her a suitable candidate to carry out the job itself. In Germany, her stewardship of the defence ministry is widely regarded as a failure and she currently faces a parliamentary investigation on consultancy scandals – nothing that qualifies her for leading an administration of 33,000 people.
“Last, but not least, in an increasingly polarised Europe, the Commission president will need a vision for the future and have ideas how to reform the integration project in a way that responds to its citizens’ problems and interests. Here, Ursula von der Leyen is blank.”
News that Christine Lagarde would likely continue Mario Draghi’s policy of loose monetary controls if confirmed as European Central Bank chief pleased global bond investors, rallying the bond market, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday evening.
A Lagarde policy of “more of the same” is considered likely given that, despite leading the International Monetary Fund for the past eight years, she is a relative newcomer to the intricacies of central banking and will likely take her time before seeking to stamp her own mark on the role.
“There are concerns about her not being an economist, not having monetary policy experience,” Professor Michele Chang, of the College of Europe’s European Political and Governance Studies department, told Al Jazeera. “We have heard these types of concerns before, when she was appointed to lead the IMF, but she has proven herself an effective manager.
“The problem with the ECB is the high turnover in the Executive Board coincides with the selection of the new ECB president. Markets are looking to see if the ECB will continue its unconventional monetary policy, and if she has the capacity to lead the ECB in new monetary policy innovations if needed, like Draghi did.
“People are going to be looking for her to have her own perspective on that and not only relying on the monetary policy experts around her, like Philip Lane (the Irish chief economist of the ECB). Jobs like the ECB presidency will need more technical capacity than that of the IMF job, but she has shown herself to be an excellent leader of a multinational economic organisation.”
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has built a reputation as a reformist liberal coalition-builder, even though Belgium has effectively been without a central government since the end of last year.
Five years ago, at the age of 38, Michel became Belgium’s youngest prime minister in more than a century and immediately had to grapple with deep polarisation in a country of 11 million people – about the same population as the state of Ohio in the United States. Belgium is split not just between left and right, but between French-speaking and Flemish-speaking communities, each with distinct cultural identities.
“The experience of being prime minister in a country like Belgium shows his ability to mediate compromise,” says the College of Europe’s Chang. “Herman Van Rompuy, the first president of the European Council (2009-14), was also Belgian, and a lot of people think the politics of Belgium forges this skill of leading compromise.”
Charles Michel’s father, Louis Michel, was a former member of the European Commission for development matters, and Charles Michel himself was minister for development in several Belgian federal governments, including that of Herman Van Rompuy.
“He also was the minister for the interior in the [French-speaking] Walloon regional government,” noted David Criekemans, associate professor in international relations at the University of Antwerp. “Previously, in 1999, he was the youngest federal Member of Parliament for Nivelles, at only 23 years old. After 20 years of Belgian politics, he has a great deal of experience.
“In 2014, he created a governing coalition between Walloon liberals, Flemish Christian Democrats and the more conservative, right-wing leaning N-VA (‘New Flemish Alliance’),” Criekemans told Al Jazeera.
“The inclusion of this Flemish nationalist group proved to be his undoing, when around Christmas of last year, they pulled the plug on the coalition over the Global Compact for Migration. The ‘Michel II’ government, a minority government, has been ‘demissionary’ – no longer in full power and only empowered to watch the shop and organise new elections.
“The elections were more than a month ago, and lots of people have been waiting to see what happens to Michel – it could be many more months before a federal government is formed in Belgium.”
He has been vocal on European affairs, notably saying that, in the case of Spain and Catalonia, that central and regional governments should keep speaking to each other. He may provide something of a counterweight in that regard to Josep Borrell.
Spain’s 72-year-old foreign minister cuts a remarkably different figure to the EU’s most recent foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. An engineer and an economist, Borrell is no fan of decentralised regional authorities amassing greater autonomy. And it’s not just about the Catalans – Spain, for example, does not recognise Kosovo, which could pose a dilemma if he assumes the role as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, which oversees the ongoing dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo.
Borrell is a former MEP and president of the European Parliament, so has no shortage of experience on this stage.
“He is a social democrat, and very close to Pedro Sanchez (the prime minister of Spain). But he is a bit of a hawk when it comes to dealing with regional governments in his country,” the University of Antwerp’s Criekemans told Al Jazeera.
“On this front, Borrell is known as quite a conservative, who believes in national sovereignty and does not think regional governments should hold referendums on increasing autonomy. When the Flemish region supported the Catalan movement and Carles Puigdemont (the former Catalan president, now an elected MEP who has been blocked from taking his seat by Spanish authorities), and supported the idea that regional identities should be encouraged and allowed to hold these votes, Borrell expelled the Flemish representative in Spain after some alleged criticism of the speaker of the Flemish Parliament, Jan Peumans.
“He has had a mixed career between politics, diplomacy and academia, but he is a sovereignist, believing only national governments can conduct foreign policy.
“If Brexit goes ahead, and Boris Johnson becomes UK prime minister, and the Scottish want to organise another independence referendum, Borrell would likely be someone at the EU who would work to slow down and frustrate those ambitions – and this might be an early test for him.”
But if only national governments, not regional governments, can conduct foreign policy – what about supranational governments, like the EU?
“The question is whether Borrell will contribute to a further ‘Europeanisation’ of foreign policy,” said Criekemans. “The chances are rather higher that he will foremost ‘manage’ the different foreign policy interests of the member states, taking into account their differences in terms of geopolitical interests.
“Of course, the new president of the European Council might [provide some] balance with Borrell in this domain, since the position of Belgian governments has long been that further steps in the Europeanisation of foreign policy are needed – since the member states can only tackle issues such as migration, climate change, and terrorism if they act together more.”