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EU leaders agree on nominations for top jobs after marathon summit

After three days of consultations, the European Council reached agreement on Tuesday to nominate Germany’s Ursula Von der Leyen as the next president of the European Commission.

Belgian prime minister Charles Michel has also been nominated as the next president of the European Council, with Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell as the high representative for foreign affairs and IMF head Christine Lagarde as the president of the European Central Bank.

If confirmed, Von der Leyen would become the first female president of the Commission.

This selection comes after several days of negotiations and a failure to reach agreement at a previous summit held earlier in June. Key names that had been in the mix for next Commission president included Frans Timmermans, Manfred Weber, and Margrethe Vestager, but resistance from different national leaders had resulted in an impasse.

To try and break the deadlock, EU leaders developed a proposal known as the Osaka plan during the recent G20 summit, giving socialist Timmermans the Commission presidency, with centre-right Weber becoming president of the Parliament. However, the European People’s Party rebelled against the plan at a pre-summit meeting on Sunday, with several national leaders, including Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, speaking out against the plan.

The Osaka plan rejection threw the negotiations into turmoil, causing the summit to begin three hours later than planned on Sunday. Current Council president Donald Tusk then conducted several one-on-one consultations throughout the night to try to broker a compromise.

The difficult discussions as well as somewhat surprising selection of Von der Leyen puts into question the so-called Spitzenkandidat process, an informal agreement in which the political families in the European Parliament each nominate a lead candidate for Commission president, with the eventual president being the candidate of the largest party in the Parliament. Used in 2014 for the selection of Jean-Claude Juncker, the process aims to address criticism directed towards the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’, forging a closer link between the individual citizen voting for a party in the European elections, and the leadership of the European Union.

At the previous summit on the 20thJune, the Spitzenkandidat process came under fire as 11 of 27 national leaders blocked the nomination of Manfred Weber, who, as the candidate of the European People’s Party, the largest group in the Parliament after the elections in May, would be the presumed choice. The apparent breakdown of this process has significantly complicated discussions over the last few weeks, whilst also raising fundamental questions over the longevity of an innovative procedure designed to bring the EU closer to its citizens.

Despite the Council’s nomination of Von der Leyen, the EU treaties require that the Commission president is approved by an absolute majority in the European Parliament. Voting on this position as well as the European Parliament president will be some of the first agenda items as the Parliament began its new term on Tuesday.

But the bypassing of the Spitzenkandidat process could cause significant opposition from this institution, which considers this process to be of high importance. In a press conference after the first night of negotiations on 30th June, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani stated that "as far as the European parliament is concerned, the principle is the lead candidate principle," citing as precedent the selection of Jean-Claude Juncker.

While the Council may have finally reached agreement, it appears as if nothing is set in stone, as the Parliament could yet still present a serious obstacle to the confirmation process.

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