EU leaders back Ursula von der Leyen for second term as president

Ursula von der Leyen has clinched the nomination to serve a second term as president of the European Commission, after a deal between EU leaders at a Brussels summit.

Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, is set to become the EU’s top diplomat, representing the bloc on the world stage for the next five years. The former Portuguese prime minister António Costa has been elected to take over as president of the European Council, putting him in charge of finding compromises between the 27 heads of state and government.

At the end of an EU summit, Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, tweeted: “Kaja, Ursula and António accepted. Defence plans accepted. Satisfaction. For Poland and for Europe.”

Von der Leyen’s path to a second five-year term it is not a fait accompli: she must win over a majority of the European parliament’s 720 MEPs, who are expected to vote next month.

The European parliament must also approve the entire commission – which includes Kallas – at a later vote in the autumn.

Von der Leyen became the first woman to lead the EU executive in its 68-year history in 2019, but only narrowly secured the support of MEPs. While on paper the groups backing her command a comfortable majority of 55%, she is expected to seek to broaden her support.

A former German government minister, von der Leyen is deemed by EU leaders to have performed well in handling the EU’s response to a once-in-a-century pandemic and the biggest war on European soil since 1945. Her frontrunner status was further cemented after her centre-right European People’s party (EEP) secured the largest number of seats in European parliament elections earlier this month.

Another hurdle was cleared this week after a deal between EU leaders representing the bloc’s largest pro-European groups, the EEP, the Socialists and the centrist Renew group.

Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who had bitterly railed against the agreement among the three pro-European groups, abstained on von der Leyen and voted against Costa and Kallas.

Meloni is the president of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, the third largest in the parliament. She accused the six male leaders who took the decision of behaving like oligarchs.

Earlier in the day, centre-right leaders embarked on a charm offensive to win round Meloni. Tusk stressed his “great respect” for Italy and its prime minister. “There are some emotions, but in reality, they may have resulted rather from misunderstandings,” he said. “There is no Europe without Italy and there is no decision without prime minister Meloni.”

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister and fellow EPP negotiator, struck a similar tone: “It was never our intention neither to exclude anyone nor offend anyone.”

Talks began around sunset in Brussels, at the end of a day when leaders met Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who urged them to fulfil their promises for military support and ammunition. Russia’s latest offensive in the Kharkiv region, which Zelenskiy said had been stopped, proved that the existing pressure on the invader “is not enough”, he said.

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Once Zelenskiy had gone, EU leaders later sparred over defence spending that touched on whether Europe should repeat the Covid recovery plan experiment with more collective borrowing. Von der Leyen told them €500bn of defence investments were needed in the EU. Member states, she said, had to decide whether they preferred to fund defence through their own budgets or common EU borrowing.

Germany and its frugal neighbour, the Netherlands, voiced their opposition to joint debt and watered down a text to reflect their concerns about making open-ended, costly financial commitments.

When the talks eventually turned to top jobs – over a dinner of summer vegetables, Ostend-style filet of sole, followed by nectarine and rosemary tart with yoghurt mousse – von der Leyen and Kallas left the room.

Earlier in the day, Belgium’s outgoing prime minister Alexander De Croo had dismissed criticism of the deal between Europe’s three pro-European political groups.

De Croo, a liberal, who leads a seven-party coalition government in Belgium, said finding agreement between different political forces was “how democracy works”. “Democracy is not only about blocking, democracy is about who wants to work together and those three political groups are willing to work together for the benefit of all Europeans.”

Asked about Meloni’s angry speech to the Italian parliament on Wednesday, De Croo turned to a Dutch proverb. “Sometimes the soup is not eaten at the same temperature that it is being served,” he said. This “basically means yesterday was yesterday, let’s listen [to] what is being said around the table today”.

The Guardian