On the evening of July 2, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, posted on his Facebook page a list of new candidates for key posts in the European Union. German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen is now applying for the post of President of the European Commission. Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, wants to appoint the president of the European Central Bank. Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell might become new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, while Prime Minister of Belgium Charles Michel will become President of the European Council. Tusk coordinated the nominations of these officials at an emergency meeting of the European Council on Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and leaders of other EU member states. Now the ball is on the side of the European Parliament, which must approve the candidacies of Ursula von der Leyen for the presidency of the European Commission and Josep Borrel - for the presidency of European diplomacy. Ukraine is closely following the personnel changes in the EU bodies, since they may affect the position of Brussels on the Ukrainian issue.
The proposed candidacies for EU leadership positions are the result of a difficult compromise between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron with leaders of other EU member states. Prior to this, the European Parliament did not support the candidacy of the German Manfred Weber, the European People's Party leader, to the presidency of the European Commission. At a meeting of the European Council on June 30, European leaders did not agree on a candidate acceptable to Paris, leader of the Alliance of Progressive Socialists and Democrats Frans Timmermans. A new list of candidates was formed with an eye to preserving the dominance of the Franco-German tandem in the political processes of the European Union, but with the wishes of European liberals.
Therefore, they decided to appoint a member of the Christian Democratic Union party of Angela Merkel Ursula von der Leyen to the post of chairman of the European Commission, von der Leyen has a reputation as a protégé of the German chancellor. Earlier, von der Leyen has predicted the role of Merkel’s successor as chancellor or as chairman of the Christian Democratic Union, which, since December 2018, has been occupied by Annegret Karrenbaum. As stated by Tusk, none of the members of the European Council voted against the appointment of von der Leyen.
At first glance, the candidacy of Lagarde for the position of President of the European Central Bank meets the interest of Paris. In 2005-2011, she held ministerial posts, including the post of Minister of Economy and Finance, worked in the team of former French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Tusk speaks of Lagarde as a fully independent candidate. However, Lagarde is a member of the Republicans party, founded by Sarkozy, who is in opposition to the ruling party.
The candidacy of Charles Michel was proposed for the EU presidency to meet the interests of Renew Europe, a liberal faction in the European Parliament, the successor to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, which includes his Reforming Movement party. Merkel and Macron need an alliance with European liberals to form a majority in the European Parliament. According to the results of the last elections to the European Parliament, the faction of the European People's Party and the Alliance of Progressive Socialists and Democrats lost a significant number of seats. Therefore, the next president of the European Council decided to appoint Michel, who is Macron’s political partner, whose La République En Marche! is a member of the Renew Europe faction.
Merkel’s person in the European Commission
Personnel changes in the European Union, in the form proposed by the European Council, might have ambiguous consequences for Ukraine since candidates for high-ranking posts take a controversial position on the Ukrainian issue. Von der Leyen will relay the position of Berlin in relation to Moscow to the all-European level. Merkel supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but at the same time, it refrains from supplying lethal weapons to Kyiv, tightening anti-Russian sanctions and is interested in building the Nord Stream-2 in order to increase the volume of transit of Russian natural gas to Europe through Germany.
Last August, Ursula von der Leyen called on NATO to take a tougher stance against Russia. In her opinion, with the help of the policy of sanctions it is necessary to force Russia to fulfill the Minsk agreements. Von der Leyen believes that the improvement of relations between Europe and Russia is hindered by the annexation of Crimea, aggression in the east of Ukraine, as well as the provision of military assistance by the Kremlin to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In November 2018, the German Defense Minister demanded that Russia release 23 Ukrainian sailors, re captured by Russian security forces in the Kerch Strait. In March 2014, von der Leyen called on NATO to provide substantial assistance to Ukraine and the Baltic States against the background of the annexation of Crimea. However, von der Leyen did not assist Germany in providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, which cannot be said about the former US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who appreciated the state of our armed forces and contributed to the provision of Ukrainian Javelin anti-tank complexes.
Being a protege of Merkel, von der Leyen as chairman of the European Commission might lobby for the continuation of the construction of the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would minimize the transit volumes of Russian natural gas through the Ukrainian gas transmission system. She advocates the search for a compromise on this issue with other EU member states. In her opinion, it is necessary that the natural gas supplier and the owner of the gas pipeline be represented by different legal entities, and Russia adheres to transparency and equal competition.
Pragmatist from Brussels
Compared with the leader of the Belgian right-wing Flemish Interest party Filip Dewinter, who last year proposed a resolution to lift sanctions against Russia in the Belgian parliament, the next president of the European Council, Charles Michel, can be called a supporter of tough measures against Russia. Charles Michel supports the continuation of the policy of sanctions until the implementation of the Minsk agreements by the Kremlin. At the same time, Belgian politicians have a pragmatic attitude towards Russia despite the aggressive policy of its leadership. In January 2018, Charles Michel visited Moscow and during negotiations with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stressed that international sanctions were usually imposed when political dialogue was unsuccessful. Michel believes that restrictive measures should not impede the political dialogue between Europe and Russia for the sake of resolving conflicts and finding the necessary solutions.
In April 2018, Michelle’s coalition partner in the Belgian parliament, leader of the New Flemish Alliance conservative party, and the mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, visited Moscow and St. Petersburg. He traveled there to attract Russian investment in the port of Antwerp despite the ongoing EU sanctions. It is doubtful that the pragmatic Belgian Michel will act as a conductor of anti-Russian sanctions together with the United States. Rather, he will look for ways to circumvent them in the interests of European business. In any case, after the US’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, Michel said that the Americans have no right to decide with which regions the EU would develop business relations.
Tired of sanctions
Josep Borrell, Federica Mogherini’s successor to the head of European diplomacy, also holds a dual position in relation to Russia. He called Russia the old enemy, who "becomes a threat again," which caused outrage of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Borrell expressed concern about the dissemination of inaccurate information about Catalonia during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in November 2018. Russian media complain that Borrell is creating a political career on criticism of Russia. However, this does not mean that he is an ardent supporter of anti-Russian sanctions. At last year’s meeting with Lavrov, Borrell said that Spain supported lifting the sanctions, provided Russia fulfills the Minsk agreements.
Candidate for the presidency of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde is familiar with Ukrainian politicians from Poroshenko’s team during her tenure as managing director of the International Monetary Fund. She confirms the readiness of the International Monetary Fund to continue providing Ukraine with macroeconomic assistance, but she is worried about slow reforms in our country. Lagarde is in favor of accelerating the implementation of in-depth structural reforms to improve the economic growth and living standards of the Ukrainians and ensure the independence of the National Bank of Ukraine. Lagarde is concerned about the trials on the denationalization of PrivatBank, and she sees this as a threat to the economic stability of Ukraine. She has a rather critical attitude to anti-Russian sanctions.
Zelensky’s team will have to make serious efforts to convince European partners of tightening anti-Russian sanctions. EU new leadership is not eager to introduce new sanctions against Russia. But Brussels does not want to understand that the Russian economy has adapted to the restrictive measures that were introduced in 2014, and this is not enough to force the Kremlin to peace.
Last word for the European Parliament
According to the procedure, the European Parliament must approve candidates von der Leyen and Borrell for authorized posts in the EU. The number of ultra-right extremists began to grow in the German army. The minister distanced herself from the army and lost confidence among the military. Bundeswehr has problems with financing; a question of rearming the army is very topical. Von der Leyen has made organizational mistakes, including excessively large unplanned expenses for the repair of the training ship of the German naval forces and consulting services for the Bundeswehr. It is possible that the candidacy of von der Leyen will raise many questions for European MEPs from various factions.
Taking into concideration the fact that von der Leyen had difficulties in managing the German Ministry of Defense, it is doubtful that she can effectively take the helm of the European Commission, whose activities cover a wider range of issues. During her political career, in addition to the post of Minister of Defense, she served as Minister of Labor and Public Affairs and headed the German Ministry for Family Affairs, Pensioners, Women, and Youth. Since 1995, the post of chairman of the European Commission has been occupied mainly by former prime ministers: Luxembourg (Jacques Santer), Italy (Romano Prodi), Portugal (Jose Manuel Barroso). Current chairman, Jean-Claude Juncker, was the Prime Minister of Luxembourg. The exception is the former vice-president of the European Commission, Spanish MP Manuel Marin, who spent only six months in the presidency in September 1999 and resigned in the face of corruption scandals.
The appointment of von der Leyen as head of the main executive body of the EU will not change the balance of power. The new list of candidates for leadership positions in the EU ignores the interests of liberals and greens. Liberals favored the appointment of European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to the post of European Commission President. Representatives of the Green / European Free Alliance faction proposed their leader, German Ska Keller, as a candidate for the presidency of the European Parliament.
Von der Leyen, Michel, Borrell, Lagarde are typical European centrists who advocate strengthening European integration, protecting the climate and the rights of migrants, a self-sufficient position of the EU in international relations with a cautious but pragmatic attitude towards the United States, China, and Russia. They are against the strengthening of Eurospectical forces.