Donald Tusk blasted by MEPs after urging Parliament to approve von der Leyen's controversial appointment as EU's chief executive
Italian Socialist David-Maria Sassoli elected to replace Antonio Tajani as EU Parliament president
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen nomination as Commission president will go to parliament for approval on July 16
Neither Spitzenkandidat, Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans nor German MEP Manfred Weber, was nominated for the top post, which EU lawmakers have intensely criticised
The surprise nominee picked to lead the EU's executive arm, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, has met with outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
A Commission spokesperson on Thursday said Juncker fully backs his potential successor, adding that the two met as "true Europeans who have known each other for years".
Von der Leyen's visit to the EU capital comes a day after her campaign blitz began for the top job in Strasbourg, where the close Merkel ally said she hopes members of the European Parliament will approve her for the role of Commission president, adding that she feels "overwhelmed" and "very honoured" to have been nominated.
Tusk's charm offensive blasted
Donald Tusk, the outgoing chief of the EU Council consisting of the EU28 leaders who nominated von der Leyen, joined the campaign trail in Strasbourg on Thursday, urging the Parliament to approve the German defence minister.
"For the first time, we achieved perfect gender balance in the top positions. Europe is not only talking about women, it is choosing women," Tusk told EU lawmakers while taking to the assembly floor.
"I hope it will inspire the European Parliament in its decisions."
But not many lawmakers were buying it the charm offensive.
Tusk's speech was met with resistance from many EU lawmakers blasting von der Leyen's nomination as undemocratic and serving the political needs of the heads of states who nominated the close ally of Angela Merkel.
"With all due respect President Tusk, I cannot support how things were done and the lack of respect you've shown to other institutions," said European People's Party group Vice-Chair González Pons.
"The future of Europe can no longer be decided behind closed doors and through secret plots."
"The Council has the right to propose a candidate to lead the Commission through the Parliament. However, what the Council doesn't have the right to do is to ignore who have been voted for by European citizens," he said.
"We believed before in the Spitzenkandidaten process and we still believe in it. And let me tell you, in five years we will still believe in it. Because we prefer ballots rather than closed-door deals."
Pons said in a statement, however, he will vote for von der Leyen but only out of a sense of responsibility to the party, which is the same group the German defence minister belongs to.
The chair of the centre-left Socialists and Democrats, Iratxe García Pérez, said EU leaders can’t “come here and just lay out the Council position and say that we have to vote for it”.
She added that the group's lead candidate, Frans Timmermans, should have been nominated as Commission president.
The European Council, which is made up of all EU28 leaders, nominated von der Leyen on the third straight day of gruelling talks earlier this week. She is set to be joined by fellow nominees Charles Michel as European Council president, Josep Borrell Fontelles as EU foreign policy chief, and Christine Lagarde to lead the European Central Bank.
Von der Leyen’s appointment — if confirmed — would ensure the top post stays within the European People's Party, the centre-right political group that received the most votes in May’s European elections. But it remains to be seen if the European Parliament would embrace a politician who is not a Spitzenkandidat.
Spitzenkandiat process to be tested
The sense of urgency to nominate the EU's chief executive on the third day of negotiations at the Council on Tuesday stemmed from the new European Parliament taking their seats for the first time in Strasbourg and voting for its president. While the president is elected by incoming MEPs, the post is nonetheless part of backdoor horsetrading deals for the Commission's top jobs.
Italian David-Maria Sassoli's successful election as Parliament president on Wednesday is seen as a win for Socialists — though not the victory the centre-left group sought in getting their lead candidate Frans Timmermans in the Commission presidency.
Tusk was also criticised by Pons for meddling with who should be the EU Parliament president, who is elected by MEPs.
Following Sassoli's election on Wednesday, the MEP said in a press conference: "I want to make clear I'm not the Council's man. I'm Parliament's man."
"The European Parliament made an autonomous and independent choice."
Von der Leyen’s nomination will test parliament’s will to stand by the Spitzenkandidat process, which is non-legally binding arrangement that sees the lead candidate of the largest political group with the mandate to lead the Commission presidency. The now-former European Parliament President Antonio Tajani has continually called for the Spitzenkandidat process to be respected by the EU Council — but many EU leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, have been critical of it.
The Council's previous compromise on Sunday had been to name EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber as the European Parliament president and to give the Commission job to the Socialists’ lead candidate Frans Timmermans, who France and Spain strongly support.
Timmermans, however, remained unpalatable to eastern EU states such as Hungary and Poland, due to his role in the bloc's rule of law probes against their nationalist governments.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said on Tuesday in Brussels, "The [Visegrad Four], we are very simple. We want somebody on the presidency of the commission who doesn't have a negative view about our region."
"Mr. Timmermans is not acceptable for us."
But the idea of von der Leyen in the top job may prove too much for socialists, especially within Germany.
Merkel herself was forced to abstain in the Council vote that nominated von der Leyen due to opposition from the Social Democrats (SPD), who are part of the government coalition.
Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz, a German socialist politician, blasted the defence minister on Twitter, saying: "A victory by Orban & Co. They have prevented Timmermans, who stands for the rule of law .... the Spitzenkandidat process is dead.”
“Von der Leyen is the weakest minister here. That seems to be enough to become head of the Commission."
What happens next?
The European Parliament must approve the nomination of von der Leyen by an absolute majority, which is half of the existing MEPs plus one. The vote is slated to take place on 16 July.
If von der Leyen does not get the majority backing as needed, then it’s back to the drawing board. EU28 leaders within the European Council will then need to propose another candidate within a month's time.
Who is von der Leyen?
Once thought to be a potential successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, von der Leyen became the country’s first woman defence minister in December 2013 and has held the post since despite controversies in her political career.
She entered politics later in life, at the age of 43, but became familiar with the life of a diplomat at a young age. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was the minister-president of Lower Saxony and the former director-general of the European Commission, among other posts, and von der Leyen herself was born in Brussels.
The 60-year-old defence minister, a close ally of Merkel, became a member of the CDU in 1990 and held various local political positions within the Hanover region between 2001-2004. Von der Leyen, a medical doctor and researcher by training, was then elected to Lower Saxony’s state parliament in 2003 and became a cabinet member as the minister for social affairs, women, family affairs and health.
Her political ambitions hastened in 2005 when Merkel appointed her federal minister of family affairs, senior citizens, women and youth. In 2009, von der Leyen was elected to the Bundestag, or German federal parliament, and was tapped as the federal minister of labour and social affairs until 2013, when she became defence minister.
Reviews have been mixed about Von der Leyen’s tenure as defence minister — and lately, it's been more critical following scandals. In December last year, German opposition parties launched a parliamentary investigation into von der Leyen's role in a spending scandal involving her ministry and the allocation of multi-million euro contracts to outside consultants.
Von der Leyen in November said of the nepotism scandal: “There were violations of the provisions guarding the awarding of contracts.”
"The involvement of external parties did not always proceed correctly. That should not be allowed to happen," she said.
Von der Leyen was in 2015 accused — and later cleared— of cheating on her PhD thesis despite instances of plagiarism. "We're talking about mistakes, not about purposeful wrongdoing," the university president said when the investigation was concluded in 2016.
Her nomination as Commission president comes at a time when her influence in national politics wanes. At the end of 2018, when five deputy spots were up for grabs under the CDU party’s new leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, von der Leyen received the fewest number of votes among her colleagues.
As her campaign blitz began this week, so has her engagement on social media. The nominee was able to expedite the creation of a verified Twitter account — a must in the Brussels bubble — and put out her first tweet that was clearly tailored for an EU audience.
Should von der Leyen's appointment as the EU's chief executive be confirmed, it would be the life raft shuttling her out of current troubled domestic waters while saving face.
EU Parliament's new president
European lawmakers on Wednesday elected their Italian colleague MEP David-Maria Sassoli with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats group as president of the European Parliament.
Sassoli, a TV journalist turned MEP, secured the absolute majority needed from lawmakers with 345 votes after the second round of ballot casting. The 63-year-old replaces fellow Italian Antonio Tajani to lead the parliament for a half term totalling 2.5 years. The subsequent 2.5 years are expected to go to an MEP within the centre-right European People's Party.
Following Sassoli's successful election, he said to Parliament: "In these months, too many people have fuelled divisions and conflicts that we thought were a sad reminder of our history. Instead, the citizens have shown that they still believe in this extraordinary path, the only one capable of providing answers to the global challenges before us."
He also touched on scepticism within the EU, saying: "We must have the strength to relaunch our integration process, changing our Union so to be able to respond more strongly to the needs of our citizens and give real answers to their concerns, to their increasingly widespread sense of loss.”
The new European Parliament president added that his priorities include youth unemployment, migration, climate change, "digital revolution", the "new world balance".
"Today is the first day of a new parliament," he said while addressing reporters. "What we've shown is that people believe in democracy, believe in the European Union."