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Women to head top EU institutions for first time

Category: Gender in the world 

Two women have won the backing of the EU’s leaders to head the European commission and European Central Bank, breaking with more than 60 years of male dominance at the top of the bloc’s institutions.

After three days of tortuous negotiations, Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, received the support of heads of state and government to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the commission in Brussels. And the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, will move to Frankfurt to take over from Mario Draghi as the first female president of the ECB once it is formally signed off by the Eurozone group.

Von der Leyen, 60, who speaks fluent English and French and studied at the London School of Economics before taking a medical degree, is now the European commission president designate. She will only formally become the first female head of the EU’s executive branch if she wins the support of a majority of MEPs.

Donald Tusk, the outgoing president of the European council, said after the marathon talks: “I am really happy about it – after all, Europe is a woman. I think that it was worth waiting for such an outcome.”

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose coalition government abstained in what was otherwise a unanimous decision to back the nomination, said: “For me, it is also a good sign that a woman will have this office for the first time.”

Merkel noted that it was the first time in 52 years that a German national would be heading the commission.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, had proposed Von der Leyen to lead the commission after Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy rejected the candidature of the Dutch former foreign minister Frans Timmermans over his previous criticism of populist governments which fail to protect the independence of their judiciary.

Von der Leyen, a gynaecologist who only came to politics in her early 40s, regularly emerges in opinion polls as one of Germany’s most popular politicians.

The mother of seven introduced improved maternity and paternity benefits as Germany’s family affairs minister and drove forward boardroom gender quotas.

She has been working to increase funding for the country’s armed forces in her most recent government role although she has been mired in controversy over the awarding of contracts and has faced criticism about gaps in military readiness.

On Brexit, she has fully supported the commission’s position on the Northern Irish backstop, and criticised the “hollow promises” of those who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU.

At the end of the summit, Tusk said the new leadership would not offer concessions on the Brexit deal struck with London.

He told reporters: “I am absolutely sure that the new leaders of our institutions will be as consistent as we are today when it comes to the withdrawal agreement and our readiness to discuss our future relationship with the UK”.

Macron confirmed Tusk’s reading of the new leadership’s position on Brexit, adding that the EU should “not be afraid of a no deal”.


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