EU summit strikes deal on von der Leyen for commission chief

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R), Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz (L) and Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrive for an EU summit in Brussels (JOHN THYS)
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R), Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz (L) and Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrive for an EU summit in Brussels (JOHN THYS)

EU leaders struck a summit deal Thursday to return Ursula von der Leyen as head of the powerful European Commission, while tapping Estonia's prime minister Kaja Kallas as the bloc's top diplomat.

The late-night accord carves up the EU's top institutional jobs for the five years to come, with former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa to head the European Council bringing together member states.

All three nominees hail from the centrist alliance that dominates the EU parliament following elections this month, despite gains by the far right including Italy's Giorgia Meloni, who put up public resistance to the top jobs deal.

While Costa, 62, will automatically succeed Council president Charles Michel this year, both von der Leyen, 65, and Kallas, 47, need to lock in majority support in the European Parliament, starting with a July vote on the commission chief that is predicted to be tight.

Tested during her first term by multiple crises from the Covid pandemic to the Ukraine war, former German defence minister von der Leyen -- if confirmed -- faces a no less daunting set of challenges from the Russian threat to climate change and a rising China.

Von der Leyen expressed her "gratitude" to the leaders gathered in Brussels for backing her for a second term -- telling reporters she would soon outline her political priorities with a view to winning the confidence of parliament.

Declaring himself "committed to promoting unity" among member states, Costa addressed the press by videolink, saying: "Europe and the world are facing challenging moments, yes, but the European Union has demonstrated its resilience in the past."

Kallas meanwhile said she had been handed "an enormous responsibility" at a time of acute geopolitical tensions.

"There's war in Europe, but there's also growing instability globally, that also are the main challenges for the European foreign policy," she said.

There was little mystery surrounding the final lineup, as an inner group of leaders had locked in a draft deal on the trio of names days earlier -- a far cry from the drama last time round in 2019 when von der Leyen eventually emerged from a backroom deal.

The agreement shares out posts between von der Leyen's centre-right European People's Party (EPP), Costa's Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and Kallas's centrist Renew Europe.

Rounding out the list, lawmakers are expected to return the EPP's Roberta Metsola as EU Parliament president.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hailed the "quick, forward-looking" decisions on top jobs, saying the nominess would "ensure that Europe is well positioned in challenging times in the coming years."

- 'Wrong in method' -

With France heading to the polls Sunday for the first round of an election where the far-right National Rally has a chance of leading the government, there was clear eagerness to get the EU jobs squared away.

But even with the centrists in a position of strength, diplomats said there was little appetite for railroading through a deal without a consensus.

Hungary's nationalist leader Viktor Orban had denounced it as a stitch-up, saying "European voters have been deceived", though his opposition was not enough to derail the accord, which needed support of 15 out of 27 leaders.

Leaders appeared more concerned to secure buy-in from Italy's Meloni, who had called the deal-making process "surreal" and accused fellow leaders of acting like "oligarchs".

Her argument was that the election success of her hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping, set to be the EU Parliament's third-largest force, as well as Italy's standing as the bloc's third-biggest economy, should be reflected in the EU leadership.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who negotiated the deal for the EPP, sent a strong signal in her direction early in the day.

"There is no Europe without Italy, and there's no decision without Prime Minister Meloni," he told reporters, with similar conciliatory sounds coming from Greece and Cyprus and Austria.

Short of a seat at the top table, Meloni made clear she wanted an influential role for Italy, starting with a vice presidency in the next European Commission with a say over industry and agriculture.

In the end, Meloni abstained on the vote for commission chief, and voted against both Costa and Kallas, diplomats said.

She posted on social media afterwards that the deal was "wrong in method and substance" and vowed to "continue to work to finally give Italy the weight it deserves in Europe."