Opinion

Get ready for a strong EU

ROME — Proponents of a strong European Union foreign policy have something to smile about this week.

The nomination of Ursula von der Leyen at the helm of the European Commission and Josep Borrell as the EUs foreign policy chief is good news for those wanting to beef up Brussels role in the world.

If the proposal for the EUs top jobs approved by the European Council on Tuesday passes muster in the European Parliament, the Continents foreign policy will be in solid hands.

Lets start with the alternative. The deal first put forward on Monday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a bright spot in the possibility of Frans Timmermans becoming Commission president. The former Dutch foreign minister is a committed Europeanist, a first-rate campaigner and an excellent vice president of the Commission who defended European values at a time of eroding democracy.

But the foreign policy community was baffled by the decision to put forward the Bulgarian politician Mariya Gabriel for the post of high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. Gabriel may have served well as digital commissioner over the last two years, but shes certainly not known for her foreign policy interest or expertise.

Beyond the Balkans and the need for a more robust European defense, tensions are brewing over the Iran nuclear deal and the increasingly frosty transatlantic relationship with the United States.

That Merkels deal fell through is a shame in many ways, especially for those who believed in the Spitzenkandidat process for choosing the Commission president. Though the scheme has its doubters, it produced a solid political-institutional package in 2014.

This years failure to do the same does not indicate the process should be dropped, however. It should be reformed, through the introduction of transnational lists and more ambitious mechanisms for the selection of the candidates. There is an opportunity to spur genuine EU-wide party politics.

Cast against this backdrop, theres a clear silver lining of Mondays debacle and the deal that emerged on Tuesday. The choice of Commission president and foreign policy chief heralds renewed vigor for the EU on the global stage.

If confirmed, von der Leyen will be the first female Commission president, one with international expertise and a strong penchant for foreign policy. Having served as German defense minister since 2013, von der Leyen has been at the heart of European foreign and security policy and the transatlantic relationship in a pivotal and tumultuous time.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen | Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Von der Leyens foreign policy credentials include the 2016 German Defense White Paper and the ensuing increase in defense spending, a steadfast commitment to NATO and the strengthening the EU-NATO relationship, and vocal support for a European security and defense union, notably the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defense Fund.

She has also overseen the gradual but steady reversal of German defense policy — moving from a defensive crouch to a willingness to take responsibility in the world. The process has been too slow, yes, but it has been no less noticeable.

Under her lead, the transformation of the Commission in the field of defense, spearheaded by the outgoing president Jean-Claude Juncker and High Representative Federica Mogherini, is guaranteed to keep moving forward, if not accelerate. This is as crucial for European foreign policy as it is for the European project as a whole.

The nomination of Borrell to succeed Mogherini is also good news. Unlike other names that had been floated in recent days, Borrell has real foreign policy experience, serving since 2018 as Spanish foreign minister in Pedro Sánchezs socialist government.

Perhaps even stronger than his foreign policy chops are his European credentials, fully on display both during his European career — which included a term as European Parliament president in 2004-2007 — and in the various government positions he has held in Spanish politics. Borrell, born in 1947, is no novice. He brings along with him experience and commitment.

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