The outcome of the top jobs marathon in Brussels has been almost universally hailed by the French press as a triumph for Emmanuel Macron. “Game, set and match” — reads a typical headline in the French daily Libération.
The French president has much to smile about. Three Francophones in the top jobs; a French president of the European Central Bank; the resolution of a damaging row with Berlin; the demolishing of the Spitzenkandidat system; a fresh, modern look for Brussels with women in the two most important posts; and in German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a European Commission president who owes her job to Macron — and who thinks more like the French president on European integration than German Chancellor Angela Merkel or her vanquished Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber.
Senior French sources concede that Macron was lucky. A package that would have placed the Socialist Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans in the Commission was brought down Monday by his Italian and Eastern European critics. Whatever its merits, it would been harder to sell as a Macron triumph. They insist, however, that the French president reaped the benefits of approaching the negotiations with clear objectives and principles rather than specific personalities or national champions.
Macron knew who he did not want: Weber, because of his soft approach to Euroskeptics in Hungary, Poland and Italy. He also knew, in general terms, what he did want: an impressive, experienced, candidate who will fight for a more ambitious program of EU reform, especially in areas like industrial policy, defense and climate change where the Germans can be edged along.
Von der Leyen gives a modern, fresh feel to the new Commission.
French president was not especially attached to any of the candidates that he did, at various points, support. The EUs chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier? Abandoned when it was clear that Merkel and her allies in Berlin would not accept a French Commission President if Weber was rejected. European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager? Fine, but shes not a French speaker (a qualification the French are obsessed with). Timmermans? Also fine, but disposable.
Macrons people say that he first suggested von der Leyen would be an ideal choice almost a year ago. Both she and Merkel then rejected the idea. Drafting von der Leyen on Monday night was, according to the French, Macrons idea (the Hungarians also claim credit).
Macron will be delighted with the outcome for three reasons. Von der Leyen speaks flawless French and will make a good showing on French TV. She is a woman and gives a modern, fresh, Macron-compatible feel to the new Commission. Already a supporter of EU reform and further integration, she is likely to go even more “Euro-native” in Brussels. And a final crucial point: As a German, she can maybe sell reformist and integrationist ideas back home, where other EU leaders could not.
Is all of this being clever after the event? Partly. Certainly, von der Leyens name never came up in conversations with French officials pre-summit or in the French media. Its likely Macron would have also claimed the Timmermans package as his personal triumph; he certainly needs one to sell back home.
But theres no denying the chips have fallen well for the French president — for the time being. He has appeared tough; he has seen off a potential pro-Hungarian Commission president; he has split the European Peoples Party; he has faced down “the Germans” — but he has also healed the rift with Berlin and undermined arguments that he is somehow anti-German.
Paris officials remain cautious. They dont want to claim too much credit in public and then face mockery if von der Leyen is rejected by the European Parliament — an outcome that remains possible. They believe that Macrons prestige will be enough — despite the failings of his Brussels point-person