European elections: EU top jobs won, and a new leadership in sight

The victory of the underdog

Following 48 hours of intense negotiations, started with the inconclusive European Council on 30 June, European leaders finally deliberated, on the evening of 2 July, over the candidates for the EU top jobs.

European Heads of States adopted the decision to propose for formal approval to the European Parliament Ursula von der Leyen as candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission. A German national and Defence Minister in Merkel’s government, Ursula von der Leyen is a surprise candidate. The leaders’ decision came after an initial compromise package, proposed by Council President Donald Tusk on behalf of France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, had languished. This package saw the European Commission Presidency assigned to the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) candidate Frans Timmermans, the European Parliament Presidency to the EPP’s Manfred Weber, the Council to Liberals from the newly formed Renew Europe (former ALDE) and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to the EPP.

As per procedure, the President of the European Commission must gain the support of at least 21 Member States, including 65% of the European population. After that, the proposed candidate must receive an absolute majority of 375 out of 748 seats in the European Parliament (small EU-nerd inside note: there are currently 748 MEPs in the European Parliament, instead of 751, as due to Spanish laws, three Catalan members were not allowed to take up their seats). The election of the German Defence Minister did not obtain the vote of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who abstained from the vote as she was constrained by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the governing coalition party in Germany, very unhappy with the outcome.

Although Ursula von der Leyen received strong backing from EU Head of States, she now faces a fierce fight in the European Parliament. In fact, with her nomination, EU leaders abandoned the Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” process, by which the European Council is expected to select from the candidates of the major European political groups, and which has much support in the European Parliament. Born and raised in Brussels, von der Leyen speaks English and French fluently, which is a major advantage in future negotiations and for a more international profile. However, she has never worked in EU affairs and she has been facing allegations of misspending and mismanagement at the German Defence Ministry. Following her nomination, negative reactions from various groups in the European Parliament emerged, with the Greens claiming to reject the Council deal, the Socialists calling it “unacceptable” and the European Leftist Group expressing unsatisfaction with the outcome. MEPs will start voting on van der Leyen’s candidacy soon and a ballot vote is expected during the week of 15 July. If her nomination fails, the European Council will have to start all over again and submit a new name to the European Parliament within a month.

Decisions, decisions, decisions..

In what was certainly a very long day for those involved in the decisions, European Heads of States also agreed on their choices for the European Council presidency, the European Central Bank (ECB) chief and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. These positions will go, respectively, to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, French Christine Lagarde, known as the “rock star” of international finance and director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a role that she has temporarily suspended, and Spanish Josep Borrell Fontelles, a former European Parliament President.

The newly elected President of the European Council, Charles Michel, will take office from the period of 1 December 2019 to 31 May 2022 and his mandate is renewable once, while the formal appointment of Borrell Fontelles as EU High Representative will require the agreement of the President-elect of the European Commission. With regards to the President of the European Central Bank, the European Council will make a formal decision on the appointment of Christine Lagarde on the basis of a Council recommendation, after having consulted the European Parliament and the ECB’s Governing Council.

Italy  x2 

In a fast turn of events, the prominent position which remained vacant was also filled on 3 July: The Presidency of the European Parliament. Italian MEP David-Maria Sassoli (S&D) was elected following two rounds of votes in the European Parliament. Sassoli won 345 votes, partly owing to a recommendation from EU Head of States to have a socialist in the lead of the next mandate of the European Parliament. Sassoli, a former TV presenter, who is well known in Italy but less popular in the rest of the EU, is a member of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party and his delegation is the largest within the S&D group in the Parliament. Interestingly, Sassoli will be the second Italian in a row to cover the position of President of the Parliament, succeeding Antonio Tajani, well-known protégé of former Prime Minister (and newly elected MEP) Silvio Berlusconi. The two characters could not be more different from each other, with Sassoli distinguishing himself for his position advocating fora greater transparency regarding the general expenditure allowance in the Parliament, and Tajani, defined by his colleagues in the Parliament as “underperforming and very uninspired”.

It now remains to be seen if the European Parliament, under the helm of Sassoli, will be able to operate, following the outcome of the recent European elections which left the big centre-right and centre-left blocs in the European Parliament with a loss of their combined majority amid an increase in support for liberals, the Greens and nationalists. Needless to say, the fragmented nature of the European Parliament will incur direct consequences in majority building and a potential slowdown in the progress of legislation and in the EU’s relationship with organisations hoping to engage with the new policymakers.

The Whitehouse team are experts in public affairs and communications, providing political consultancy advice to a wide range of clients across the member states of the European Union and the United Kingdom. More information about our political and public affairs experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please get in touch with our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at