Von der Leyen gets nod for second EU term, Estonia’s Kallas as top diplomat

Leaders strike deal at a summit where Antonio Costa was also named as the next head of the European Council.

European leaders met at their headquarters in Brussels [John Thys/AFP]

Ursula von der Leyen has been nominated for a second term as head of the European Commission while Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has been tapped as foreign policy chief after European Union leaders reached a late-night deal on the institution’s top jobs.

Under the agreement, reached despite resistance from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa was named to head the European Council.

“Mission accomplished! The European Council has delivered,” the body’s current chair, Charles Michel, told reporters early on Friday, following the summit in Brussels.

All three nominees are part of the centrist alliance that dominates the EU parliament and while Costa will automatically succeed Michel this year, von der Leyen and Kallas will need to win the legislature’s backing in order to be confirmed in their positions.

The vote, which is expected to be tight after a far-right surge in this month’s elections, will take place in July.

Von der Leyen expressed her “gratitude” to EU leaders for backing her for a second term and told reporters she would soon outline her political priorities with a view to winning the confidence of parliament.

Declaring himself “committed to promoting unity” among member states, Costa addressed the press by videolink, saying: “Europe and the world are facing challenging moments, yes, but the European Union has demonstrated its resilience in the past.”

Kallas, meanwhile, said she had been handed “an enormous responsibility” at a time of acute geopolitical tensions.

“There’s war in Europe, but there’s also growing instability globally, that also are the main challenges for the European foreign policy,” she said.

The three won broad backing from the EU leaders, although Italy’s Meloni abstained from the vote on von der Leyen and voted against Costa and Kallas, according to diplomats. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, also on the hard right, voted against von der Leyen and did not vote for Kallas, they added.

Meloni said on social media platform X that she decided not to support the leadership slate “out of respect for the citizens and the indications that came from those citizens during the elections”.

There was little mystery surrounding the final lineup, as an inner group of leaders had locked in a draft deal on the trio of names days earlier, a far cry from the drama last time round in 2019, when von der Leyen eventually emerged from a backroom deal.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hailed the “quick, forward-looking” decisions on the top jobs, saying the nominees would “ensure that Europe is well positioned in challenging times in the coming years”.

Russia’s reaction

The Kremlin said on Friday that the outlook for EU-Russia ties was bad after the new nominations.

“Mrs von der Leyen is not in favour of normalising relations between the EU and Russia. That’s how we know her, that’s how we remember her. Nothing changes in this respect,” said spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Though sometimes riven by divisions, the EU has mobilised to try to help Ukraine against Russia financially and militarily since President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in 2022. Brussels has also imposed multiple packages of sanctions on Moscow to try to force it to withdraw its forces.

Commenting on the choice of Kallas for EU foreign policy chief, Peskov said she was known for her anti-Russian rhetoric.

“Mrs Kallas has not demonstrated any diplomatic inclinations so far either, and is well known in our country for her absolutely intransigent and sometimes even openly anti-Russian statements,” he said.

“Therefore, we do not think that European diplomacy will contribute in any way to the normalisation of relations. The prospects, in terms of relations between Moscow and Brussels, are bad.”

Ukraine security deal

EU leaders at the summit also signed a security agreement with Ukraine and debated how to bolster the bloc’s defences against Russia as they agreed on their strategic priorities for the next five years.

European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy is in the middle. Michel and von der Leyen are holding blue folders embossed with the EU circle of stars and gold trim. They are all smiling.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (centre) with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen after the signing of the EU-Ukraine security agreement [Olivier Hoslet/Pool via AP Photo]

The security deal underlines EU support for Kyiv fighting off Moscow’s invasion for a third year, despite the far-right’s recent election gains, uncertainty created by French snap elections and the presidential vote in the United States in November.

The agreement lays out the EU’s commitments to help Ukraine in nine areas of security policy, including arms deliveries, military training, defence industry cooperation and demining.

“These commitments will help Ukraine defend itself, resist destabilisation and deter future acts of aggression – more concrete proof of the EU’s unshakeable resolve to support Ukraine for the long haul,” Michel said.

The leaders reiterated their pledge to support Ukraine as long as it takes, stressing that “Russia must not prevail”, and that Ukraine must get back its territory annexed by Moscow.

Russian soldiers are currently pushing forward in the east of Ukraine with intense battles around towns including Chasiv Yar, where the military said it had pushed back Russian forces on Thursday, although a Russian commander claimed his forces had advanced in the area.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies