For the first time in European history, women occupy two of the most important posts in the governance of Europe. The German Ursula Von der Leyen is the new head of the European Commission and the French Christine Lagarde will succeed the now legendary Mario Draghi at the helm of the Central European Bank. The agreement on these hard-fought nominations came after a dramatic rejection of the Dutch Frans Timmermans who was sponsored by the French-German axis. Nonetheless, this theatrical coup does not represent a defeat for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, since the new chief of the commission is none other than her loyal associate, entrusted with a variety of government jobs, the current one as minister of defense. Ursula Von der Leyen is a 61-year-old mother of seven. Critics say that she is “the friend of Angela but not of the party,” the CDU (Christian Democratic Union).
The Trump administration should not have problems with her except for the fact that the new president of the commission is a convinced believer in European unity as a federal project. In today’s circumstances, the idea of the United States of Europe is a chimera. President Trump does not need her as an enemy, but he has to watch out for another woman, a power in international economics, Christine Lagarde, the current head of the Internal Monetary Fund. She promises to be quite a foil to the intemperance of the American president with the European partners in the economic and commercial engagement, not to mention the sharp divisions in matters of security and particularly in regard to Trump’s belligerence toward Iran.
The nominations announced by the outgoing president of the European Council Donald Tusk – including those of the Belgian Charles Michel for the Council and the Spanish Josep Borrell as high representative for foreign policy – will have to be approved by the European Parliament. And this is where the divisions in Europe will flare up again. The approval requires a qualified majority of the 28 members, with the proviso that at least 21 of them represent 65 percent of the European population. The territorial divisions are stark. While the French faction’s proposal to “Renew Europe” favors the adoption of an autonomous budget for the Eurozone, the Peoples’ Party and the liberals of Northern Europe insist on the primacy of national fiscal responsibilities. The veto of the choice of Timmermans came from the so-called Visegrad bloc (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary). Strong opposition also came from the populist Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini of Italy, who fought the threat of a punitive procedure by the commission against Italy for having exceeded the limit of the budget deficit.
Italy was shut out of the negotiations for the new chiefs of the Union, alongside another victim of the European bureaucracy, England. The British, who plan to leave at the end of October come what may, did not participate in the selection process. Moreover, the Brexit Party members went as far as turning their backs at the playing of the European anthem during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasburg. The Italians will have little influence in the new line up of the powers that be in Europe because the two parties that are governing the country – the League and the Five Star movement – are part of the opposition in both the European Parliament and the European Council. They barely dodged the bullet of an infraction procedure against Italy for the shortcomings of its budget. Many feared that the start of such a punitive measure against Italy could cause an Italexit. The main point, however, is this: how much stability can Europeans expect in the new leadership? Merkel and Macron have survived the test but the European socialists are mighty unhappy about the result of the selection process, along with the populists who are clamoring for new rules, starting with immigration, fiscal policies and economic growth. The Italians and the Visegrad club may be content with the assignment of two important posts in the commission, respectively for competition and energy. But it will be still up to the Germans and the French to run things in the European fora. On the other hand, many applaud the elevation of two women to the highest positions of responsibility. Besides, they are curious to see how the macho President Trump will deal with them.