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News & Insights on Europe

News and Views on Europe – 19 Jul 2019

posted by eucentresg

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Von der Leyen confirmed as EU Commission President as more job shuffling follows to fulfil geographical and gender balance
On Tuesday (15 July), the European Parliament elected Ursula von der Leyen for Commission by a slim margin. Von der Leyen (VDL) won by 383 votes in a secret ballot, just slightly above the absolute majority of 374 required to be elected. There were 327 votes in opposition and 22 abstentions. In comparison the current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was confirmed in 2014 by 422 votes.

VDL delivered a last minute speech on the day of the vote which gained the support of three main groups: European People’s Party, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D), and the centrist-liberal Renew Europe group, which has a total of 442 MEPs. While there are rebels assumed to be in those camps, it is estimated that 75% of centre-leftists voted for von der leyen.

The Greens group voted against her for the most part, despite her promise for a “green deal for Europe”. The new green deal, which emphasized increasing the EU’s emission reduction target by 2030, from 40 percent to “50 if not 55 percent”, was part of a series of promises the new Commission President made to sway the majority into voting for her. While VDL’s environmental proposal seemed to have moved the Socialists to her camp as they gave her their conditional support, Ska Keller–the co-leader of the Greens–said her speech lacked concrete substance on environmental issues. Meanwhile the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) were dissatisfied with her speech and cut ties with her. This was due to Poland’s ruling PiS party’s suspicion of her proposal of an EU-wide Rule of Law mechanism, which reminds them of “Timmermans’ method”.

Other promises made by VDL included being open to extending Brexit deadline beyond October 31st, a more growth-oriented fiscal policy, taxing big tech, and emphasizing gender equality. However, on the latter, she might face a tough fight with EU member states. An article in EUObserver noted that thus far of the names being put up, male nominees far exceeded female nominees.

Reactions from the EU capitals mostly followed the pattern of their corresponding groups in EU parliament. Berlin was expectedly elated. In Paris, the strongest support came from the liberal “macronist camp” but only 40% of French MEPs voted for her. In Italy, The League, associated with the far right Identity and Democracy group (I&D), withdrew their support while the 5-star movement and other parties in the EPP and S&D voted for her. The Visegrad Four also congratulated VDL but not without Poland and Hungary citing the importance of their votes in tipping the scale in her favor. The Balkan countries also expressed their contentment at her election.

VDL’s election, which bypassed the Spitzenkandidaten system, showed that the game in Brussels has changed, especially regarding the certainty of majority coalitions between the two strongest groups in Parliament: EPP and S&D. Most notably, in the new Parliament, a new majority will have to be sought every time and decisions can no longer rely on political groups voting “en bloc”. Additionally, it has shown that Central European opinion matters now more than ever for decision making in Parliament.

According to a POLITICO report, the advantage VDL has over her critics, however, is that she is well positioned to tackle this changed political landscape in Brussels and restoring balance between the Commission and Parliament. She has proven that she is not only a puppet of the Council by leaning in towards Parliament’s liberal, green and Socialist blocs with her initiatives. Unlike Juncker, she is also said to be better poised to lead Brexit talks but VDL also has debts to pay in the form of the Poland and Hungary as well as French President Emmanuel Macron.

In light of VDL’s confirmation as President-elect of the Commission, European Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr will step down from his post. This is seen as another victory for her as Selmayr’s appointment has been tainted with controversy.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s purported successor and current chief of the Christian Democratic Union, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has been appointed as the new defence minister of Germany. She will take her position as head of the defence ministry, known as the “ejector seat” of German politics, on Wednesday. This is seen as a political maneuver to bolster Kramp-Karrenbauer as Merkel’s successor but taking charge the German military is no easy task. Von der Leyen herself had failed to reform the defence ministry in her six-year tenure but this would give Kramp-Karrenbauer the chance to prove herself on what is seen as the stepping stone to the chancellery.

Christine Lagarde also announced on Tuesday (15 July) that she will be leaving the International Monetary Fund (IMF) effectively on 12 September to focus on her bid for the President of the European Central Bank (ECB). She said in a statement that her departure “will expedite the selection process for my successor”. David Lipton will remain acting managing director of the IMF until Lagarde is replaced.

EU capitals are working on a list of European candidates to take over the role of the managing director, aiming to keep the world’s lender of last resort in their hands. The IMF is influential in shaping the economic policies of 189 countries in the world where Europe faces competitors from Asia, such as China, Japan, and Singapore who could put their own candidates forward.

Meanwhile in Parliament, French President Emmanual Macron’s group, RE, has changed position to support Romanian anti-corruption chief, Laura Codruța Kövesi, for the role as EU public prosecutor. In doing so, Paris abandoned its initial support for the other candidate, Frenchman Jean-François Bohnert. The new position of head of European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) was created to crack down on fraud and other crimes affecting the EU budget. Kövesi made her name as anti-corruption officer by prosecuting many senior politicians in the Romanian government but Bohnert has claimed that the role requires more experience in fiscal matters than she has.

While the decision on Kövesi’s candidacy is still pending, it would add a much needed presence of Central and Eastern Europe to this year’s list of essential jobs. According to EURACTIV, it is important that at least four ‘slots’: a vice-president of the Commission, the European Ombudsman, the European Prosecutor and the Secretary-General of the European Commission, should remain open to Central European candidates to strike a geographical balance.

 

EU sanctions Turkey for drilling off coast of Cyprus; EU attempts to salvage Iran nuclear deal
On Monday (15 July), the EU agreed to enact sanctions in response to Turkey’s oil and gas drilling off the coast of Cyprus. As part of the sanctions package, EU foreign ministers decided to reduce the pre-accession assistance to Turkey for 2020 by €145.8 million, halt high-level bilateral talks, suspend negotiations for the EU-Turkey aviation agreement and review the European Investment Bank’s lending activities to Turkey. The European Council called on Turkey to cease drilling activities off the coast of Cyprus and to act “in accordance with international law”.

The EU delayed the announcement by a few hours after Ankara requested it not to interfere with the commemoration of the third anniversary of the failed coup against Turkish President, Recep Erdogan. Some EU member states noted that Turkey did not halt its drilling activities over the weekend in spite of requests for sensitivity on the side of the EU. The move to sanction Turkey came after a second Turkish drillship arrived off the coast of Cyprus. Cyprus has been split between an “ethnic Greek south and an ethnic Turkish north” since the 1974 invasion by Ankara. Turkey defended its drilling activities as legal as it claimed to be doing so in the territorial waters of Northern Cyprus. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognised by Turkey. Cypriot officials accused Turkey of using the Turkish Cypriot minority as an excuse to pursue its goal of exerting more control over the eastern Mediterranean region. On top of the EU sanctions, Turkey faces possible sanctions by the US for purchasing a Russian-made missile defense system.

Turkey dismissed the sanctions enacted by the EU and foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu indicated that Ankara would increase its hydrocarbon exploration efforts in response. According to Turkish state media, a fourth Turkish drill ship would be arriving in the region “as soon as possible”. This response came on the same day (16 July) the Cypriot government refused a proposal put forth by the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı to form a “joint committee” to ensure both sides could benefit from resources found in its waters. Separately, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the EU Vladimir Chizhov criticised the sanctions, arguing that the sanctions were not lawful as the EU was not authorised by international law to impose sanctions against others.

Separately, EU ministers have urged Iran to comply fully with the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA). Despite its claims of compliance with the nuclear commitments under the JCPoA, Iran recently breached the agreed limits on uranium stockpiling and enrichment. The ministers expressed regret over the US withdrawal from the deal and were looking at establishing alternative channels of communications.

High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini stressed that none of the other parties to the agreement felt the breaches were “significant” enough to warrant enacting the dispute resolution mechanism in the pact. She acknowledged that the deal was likely facing its “most difficult moment since [2015]”. Should the dispute resolution mechanism be triggered and the issue remain unresolved in the designated timeframe, the UNSC may reimpose sanctions, a scenario that Germany, France and the UK are looking to avoid.

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