(CN) — In a sign of strengthening cooperation between France and Germany and growing determination to steer a troubled Europe into brighter days, Europe’s 28 national leaders agreed to nominate two high-profile women to lead the European Union. If approved by the European Parliament, it would be the first time women are in charge of the EU’s key institutions.
On Tuesday evening, the European Council, the EU’s policy-making body composed of the EU’s 28 heads of state, announced the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen, the center-right German defense minister, as the next president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
The European Council also picked Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister and head of the International Monetary Fund, for the position of European Central Bank president. The central bank oversees Europe’s finances.
The nominations come during an intense period in which new leaders for EU institutions are chosen after May elections for the European Parliament. The elections, which take place every five years, were a watershed moment because Europe’s two ruling groups, the conservatives and socialists, saw their majority broken for the first time. The conservatives, though, held onto enough votes to remain the parliament’s biggest party, leaving them entitled to fulfill the EU’s top jobs.
The nominations must be approved by the European Parliament, the EU’s only directly elected institution. Although the council’s picks are rankling some in the parliament, the nominations are expected to go through because the parliament wields less power than the council, an assembly made up of elected national leaders.
The nominations were a victory for Europe’s two biggest countries and their leaders: conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel and liberal French President Emmanuel Macron. In January, the two leaders re-signed a bilateral agreement to work together on security and defense to make the EU stronger.
Macron backed the candidacy of Von der Leyen, a longtime ally of Merkel’s. She was considered somewhat of a surprise nomination, in large part because she was not officially in the running for the position.
Still, she’s a well-known politician in Europe. She has a long career, having served since the beginning of Merkel’s steadfast chancellorship that began in 2005. Before becoming defense minister in 2013, she served as the German minister for family affairs and then as labor minister.
In the past, she was viewed as a possible successor to Merkel, but her political ambitions in Germany were damaged by criticism of her efforts to modernize the German army, the Bundeswehr. Germany is seeking to build up its army, but those aspirations have been fraught with problems.
Von der Leyen is a 60-year-old Brussels-born daughter of a former high-ranking European Commission civil servant from Germany and she is the mother of seven children. She is often likened to Hillary Clinton in her manners and is known for a tough, can-do spirit. She is a physician by training and is married to a physician of aristocratic origins; she is fluent in French, English and German.
If approved by the European Parliament, Von der Leyen would become the first female president of the commission and only the second German to hold the top position. The only German at the helm of the commission was Walter Hallstein between 1958 and 1967, back in the early days when the EU was still forming.
She would take over from Jean-Claude Juncker, the 64-year-old former prime minister of Luxembourg who has led the commission for the past five years. Juncker has overseen the EU during a turbulent period for Europe: It’s been strained by terrorist attacks, the Brexit referendum, an economy weakened by the 2008 financial collapse, an influx of refugees and immigrants and a rise in far-right political movements.
Macron expressed pleasure at the nominations. In a news briefing, the French president called the prospective leaders a “profound renewal” of Europe’s institutions and a reflection of the changing political landscape.
Lagarde is set to become the first female president for Europe’s central bank. At 63, she rose to prominence inside France’s mainstream conservative party, the Republicans, and was deeply involved, as chairwoman of the International Monetary Fund, in handling the fallout from the 2008 financial collapse. She pushed for austerity measures in Europe, cutting of public debt and took a tough line on Greece’s requests for bailouts.
If confirmed, Lagarde would confront a brewing debt crisis in Italy, where demands are growing to permit the country to spend more freely to reboot one of Europe’s most important economies. Italy is struggling through a period of low growth, high unemployment and population loss, but the EU has taken a hard line and required it to stay within spending limits.
The announcement of two women to lead the EU came as a surprise for many — and provided a much-needed sense of change atop the EU’s bulky, and male-dominated, bureaucracy. Both women are considered socially liberal, fiscally conservative and nimble politicians with a lot of charisma.
Before the European elections, many inside the EU demanded that women be given higher-profile jobs, and the nominations of Von der Leyen and Lagarde reflect that push.
The picking of the top EU civil servants is a highly political affair in which the potpourri of politicians from across Europe are expected to strike a balance and ensure top jobs are handed out in a way to represent the biggest political parties while ensuring small countries and big countries are represented too.
To that end, the European Council nominated Spain’s Socialist Foreign Minister Josep Borrell as its top foreign affairs functionary, the high representative for the EU’s foreign office.
The European Council also elected Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel as its new president, a gift to the smaller countries. Michel will take over from Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister. His pick does not need to be confirmed by the European Parliament.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament elected its new president, whose job roughly parallels that of speaker of the house in the U.S. Congress. An Italian with the left-wing Democratic Party, David Sassoli, won that honor.
The seating of this new European Parliament has been marked by protests.
At its opening on Tuesday, newly elected members of the Brexit Party, an anti-EU party led by far-right British politician Nigel Farage, turned their backs in protest when the EU anthem was played. The Brexit Party, which advocates the U.K’s departure from the EU, was formed after the British Parliament deadlocked over the question of whether the United Kingdom should leave the EU or not. Because of the deadlock, U.K. voters were allowed to vote in the European elections and the Brexit Party took in the most the votes, a reflection of strong support for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Also, thousands of pro-Catalonia supporters rallied outside the parliament in Strasbourg, France, creating a sea of Catalan flags and colors. They were protesting the exclusion of three politicians elected to the parliament by supporters of Catalonia’s drive for independence from Spain.
The Spanish government does not recognize them as members of the European Parliament even though they were allowed to run for the positions and were elected. Thus, they are for now excluded from the proceedings.
Those excluded parliamentary members are Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia’s regional government and a key figure in the Catalan independence drive in 2017. He went into exile in Belgium after Spain issued an arrest warrant for his actions during the failed 2017 secession attempt.
Also elected, and excluded from parliament, is Oriol Junqueras, the former vice president of Catalonia. He is in prison and on trial for his role in the 2017 independence drive. A third Catalan politician also in exile, Toni Comín, is the third Catalan excluded from taking his seat in Parliament.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)