Could Germany’s defence minister take EU top job?

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen emerged Tuesday as a possible compromise candidate to lead the European Commission.

Could Germany's defence minister take EU top job?
Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: DPA

It came as EU leaders struggled to break the deadlock over the bloc's top jobs after three days of talks.

They have been haggling since Sunday evening over who should fill the union's four most important roles over the next five years, riven by division and infighting.

A European source told AFP that 60-year-old conservative von der Leyen's name was in the frame to replace current commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, after an earlier proposal to name Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans ran into stiff opposition.

Under the new proposal, von der Leyen would lead the commission, with Frenchwoman Christine Lagarde, the current head of the IMF, taking charge at the European Central Bank (ECB) — giving the bloc's two most powerful countries a major job apiece.

The plan would also see Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel take over from Donald Tusk as president of the European Council of member states, while the last job, of foreign policy chief, would go to either Maros Sefcovic of Slovakia or Spain's Josep Borrell.

Proposed by Macron

Von der Leyen, a minister for the past 14 years under German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, according to several sources.

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs tweeted that the Visegrad 4 bloc – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia – would support von der Leyen as commission chief.

Backing from the V4 would save von der Leyen the fate suffered by Timmermans, who was suggested by France and Germany as commission chief instead of the early front-runner Manfred Weber.

A marathon 18-hour negotiating session that began on Sunday evening broke up without agreement on Monday as the V4 plus Italy, where the populist government shares some of the Eastern Europeans' anger at Brussels over migration, refused to countenance Timmermans.

As he arrived at the summit on Tuesday, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis slammed Timmermans, who pushed a softer line on migration, as “absolutely unacceptable”.

“He has always pushed a migration policy which is unacceptable for us, so this man is absolutely unacceptable and I can't see why the prime ministers of France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany weren't able to understand,” Babis said.

Other countries – including Ireland, Latvia and Croatia – also objected on the grounds they had not been properly consulted about the French-German plan cooked up on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka at the weekend.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez initially stood firm behind fellow Social Democrat Timmermans on Tuesday, but after a morning of bilateral and small group meetings among leaders, the Dutchman's chances were finally buried, according to two sources close to the talks.

The flurry of last-minute informal talks kept pushing back the start of the formal session – originally scheduled for 11am, it was delayed to 1pm, then 3:15pm before finally getting under way at 4:20pm.

'New creativity' 

For a candidate to get the nod, they need the backing of 21 of the 28 EU leaders, representing 65 percent of the bloc's population.

Merkel said leaders would approach day three with “new creativity”, but warned that “everyone needs to understand that they need to move a little – and I mean everybody”.

Deciding the top jobs has been complicated by the fragmentation of the EU political landscape in the May elections to the European Parliament.

The centre-right EPP and centre-left socialist group, the dominant forces in EU politics for years, lost their combined majority in the assembly.

The liberals, which include Macron supporters, are increasingly assertive over the choice of top jobs after they and the Greens made significant gains in the polls.

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The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.