European leaders appoint top EU officials, who opt for stability

European Union leaders on Thursday chose three top politicians to lead the bloc’s institutions for the next five years, underscoring their commitment to Ukraine and the need for stability amid election surprises in Europe and possibly the United States.

At a summit in Brussels, leaders of the EU’s 27 member states agreed to nominate Ursula von der Leyen, a German conservative, for a second term at the head of the powerful European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.

António Costa, a socialist and until recently Prime Minister of Portugal, was elected president of the European Council, which consists of 27 heads of government. The Council strikes a balance between Ms von der Leyen’s political and geographical background.

And Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, a hawk on Russia, was the official picked to become the bloc’s top diplomat.

The selection of these three senior politicians, all of whom have solid working relationships with each other, is an attempt by leaders in the European Union to place relatively centrist figures at the helm of key institutions, despite the rise of far-right political leaders, such as Giorgia Meloni in Italy, and ultra-nationalist, nativist parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France.

Ms von der Leyen’s re-election will face a serious test in the European Parliament, the bloc’s only elected institution, where she will have to lobby to win a majority in the 720-seat assembly in a secret ballot due to take place in mid-July. She belongs to a centre-right grouping that is the largest in the parliament but is far from a majority.

Ms von der Leyen, 65, has emerged as an unexpected wartime leader for the European Union in her role as president of the European Commission since 2019, and has achieved wider prominence on the world stage than she ever had in her career as German politician.

Ms von der Leyen, who is often referred to in political circles by her initials, “VDL”, became a household name in the European Union after leading a response to the coronavirus pandemic on behalf of member states – including the joint procurement of vaccines and an economic stimulus program financed by jointly issued debt, both firsts.

Her steadfast support for Ukraine in the war against Russia is her more recent trademark policy. She has used the committee’s resources to advocate for weapons and reconstruction funding for Ukraine, and to push for the country to one day join the European Union.

Ms. von der Leyen is a strong supporter of strong European ties with the United States and has quickly become one of the most trusted leaders in Europe for President Biden and his administration. This close alliance has been particularly evident in the implementation of major sanctions against Russia following the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

EU leaders, who nominate these top officials, said that despite some criticism, they were pleased with how Ms von der Leyen had managed to deploy the commission’s tens of thousands of expert staff and resources to support the EU’s response. block to support major crises around the world. past five years.

Ms von der Leyen, a workaholic who practically lives in a studio apartment in her 13th-floor office at the European Commission, has been criticised as a micromanager, alienating some senior commission staff. More recently, her seemingly uncritical support for Israel in the Gaza war has been criticised by some as not representative of the European Union’s broader position. Some have also said she is not open enough with the news media and the general public.

The New York Times has filed a lawsuit the commission in a freedom of information case, in which she demanded the release of messages exchanged between her and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla during the EU Covid-19 vaccine contract negotiations. The exact terms and costs of the billion-dollar purchase, the bloc’s largest ever, remain secret.

Mr Costa, 62, the socialist former prime minister of Portugal, was elected president of the European Council. The council is the institution that convenes the national governments of the member states and analyzes their preferences.

The job involves tricky diplomacy, as the council president is tasked with coordinating and leading negotiations among the 27 leaders who come from different political backgrounds and primarily represent the narrow interests of their own countries. Mr Costa will replace Charles Michel, a Belgian politician. Mr Costa’s two-and-a-half-year term is renewable once.

The appointment of Mr. Costa is a nod to the second largest political group in the European Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats. He has a good relationship with Mrs. von der Leyen, with whom he worked in his capacity as Prime Minister of Portugal during her first term.

With this appointment, Mr Costa, who has Mozambican and Indian descent, becomes the first person of color to hold a top position in the European Union.

He has had problems at home, after corruption allegations ensnared his chief of staff last year, but he has not been personally accused of any wrongdoing. He resigned preemptively after those allegations came to light in November 2023.

The leaders also chose Ms Kallas, the prime minister of Estonia, to become the bloc’s top diplomat, succeeding Josep Borrell Fontelles.

Mr Borrell, a Spanish socialist, is known for his outspoken views, which proved to be both an advantage and a disadvantage during his time in office, depending on the point of view.

He has repeatedly expressed support for the creation of a Palestinian state and has criticized Israel for its conduct of the war against Hamas.

But he also raised eyebrows over comments describing Europe as “a garden” and juxtaposing it with other parts of the world, which he called “a jungle.” The comments, made as Europe struggled to gain global support for Ukraine partly because of the long shadow of colonialism, led to accusations of neo-colonialism and racism.

Selecting Ms Kallas, who will have to step down as prime minister to take on the new role, will serve as a powerful signal to Russia. Ms Kallas, 47, is a fierce critic of the Kremlin and one of the most outspoken pro-Ukrainian voices in the bloc.

Although the European Union is not a major diplomatic power, with its individual member states preferring to retain control of their own foreign policy rather than assign it to a collective center, its position vis-à-vis Russia matters. The collective-level bloc also controls a major set of sanctions on a number of countries around the world, including Iran and Russia.

Aurelien Breeden contributed to reporting from Paris, and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.

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