In the space of 30 hours this week, French president Emmanuel Macron went from railing against a dysfunctional EU paralysed over senior appointments to hailing a breakthrough deal as the start of “Act II” of the European project.
His elation at the end of three days of fraught talks with Angela Merkel and other leaders in Brussels was a sign of how the French president had emerged as perhaps the only clear winner.
The final agreement includes France’s Christine Lagarde as president of the European Central Bank; one of Mr Macron’s closest political allies, Belgium’s Charles Michel, as European Council president; and one of his preferred candidates, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, as president of the European Commission.
For Mr Macron, it was “a new team, profoundly renewed, new faces, a new energy, in the service of a new agenda we have defined over these last weeks”.
The French president arrived in Brussels on Sunday with a clear agenda of his own. It was to secure Francophile appointees who shared his EU reform ambitions; place at least two women in the top jobs; and weaken the dominance of the centre-right European People’s party in Brussels. He triumphed on all three points.
The outcome was a rare but resounding success for Mr Macron on the EU stage after serial disappointments in his efforts to achieve his political goals.
From equipping the eurozone with a large countercyclical budget, to forging a common asylum and immigration system, Mr Macron’s political energy has often generated little momentum. His policy stances have also occasionally left him isolated: France was outvoted this year when it opposed the start of trade talks with the US, and Mr Macron’s hawkish stance on Brexit has unsettled some other capitals.
But Tuesday’s deal had a clear French imprimatur: crucially, it was Mr Macron, rather than Ms Merkel, who pushed the idea of Ms von der Leyen as commission president, so helping to unblock the talks that had become bogged down over other names.
“It looks like a victory for Emmanuel Macron,” said Maxime Sbaihi, managing director at GenerationLibre, a think-tank, contrasting the French president’s performance with that of Ms Merkel, who “appears to have lost some power”.
Germany’s chancellor is facing criticism from her Social Democrat coalition partners in Berlin over the centre-left being short-changed in the jobs deal, despite securing the commission presidency for a German for the first time in 50 years.
Ms Merkel also failed in earlier efforts to win support for Manfred Weber, the EPP’s lead candidate in the European elections, as a potential commission president.
Diplomats said Mr Macron’s success was a product of skilled negotiation and the happenstance that other countries’ objectives meshed well with his own.
Talks between Mr Macron and Ms Merkel late on Monday yielded a compromise based on Ms von der Leyen at the commission and Ms Lagarde at the ECB. The move changed the dynamic of a negotiation where, previously, it had been unclear whether the ECB presidency would be an integral part of the package.
Pascale Joannin, managing director of the Robert Schuman Foundation, said: “It was a stroke of genius to propose Lagarde.
“It is the first time that Europe has a woman leading these two important institutions and it sends a new, modern image of Europe.”
Factors in Mr Macron’s favour included the decision of Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez, Europe’s most powerful socialist leader, to prioritise securing the post of foreign policy high representative for Josep Borrell. It opened the door for Mr Macron’s liberal group to claim the European Council presidency for Mr Michel.
Speaking to reporters after the deal was sealed on Tuesday, Mr Macron highlighted one its lesser-known aspects. “It is a leadership team who are all French speakers,” he said. “We have always had a commission president who speaks French. It’s good this continues.”
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