The appointment of Poland’s Donald Tusk and Italy’s Federica Mogherini to the EU’s two key posts on Saturday, spells the tough balancing act that new Commission leader Jean-Claude Juncker will be tasked with in the face of a split over the level of sanctions to be imposed on Russia.
With the key posts out of the way, Juncker will now complete the list of the rest of his Commissioners for approval by the European Parliament, with the glaring factor being the absence of women on his Council.
Tusk and relatively inexperienced Mogherini, the two favourites to become the next European Council president and foreign chief, were appointed by EU heads of state and government in Brussels, but not after a weeks of controversy, with the Polish leader expected to be harsh on Moscow over its involvement in the Ukraine crisis and the incumbent Italian foreign minister, who wants a diplomatic solution to the problem.
At a press conference shortly after 8pm the two received flowers and a standing ovation by some journalists before they were introduced by current European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
"You two have the full endorsement of the European Council and this was important to me," the former prime minister of Belgium, who steps down on November 30, said. "They will work closely together to protect Europe's interests and values."
He added that Tusk is a veteran among EU leaders, having been prime minister since 2007, and highlighted his economic achievements, such as steering Poland through the global financial crisis without it falling into recession at any point.
Van Rompuy added that Tusk's main priorities over the next two and a half years, the length of the Council presidency, would be to get Europe out of the financial crisis, deal with the situation in Ukraine and keep Britain in the EU.
Tusk highlighted that he wants to be a unifying figure, stating that, "We need to prevent Europe from dividing into euro and non-euro camps. I wouldn't have taken job if it involved new institutional split,” the news and policy site EurActiv reported.
Van Rompuy said he was convinced that Mogherini would be a "steadfast mediator".
Mogherini addressed her perceived inexperience, saying her political and civil society experience was also valuable.
Asked about her relationship with Russia, Mogherini said she will strive to keep diplomatic channels open as the military option was not a viable solution to the crisis.
Both Tusk and Mogherini were the front runners for the prestigious top jobs ahead of the last EU summit on 16 July. Back then Mogherini was blocked by some Eastern European and Baltic countries, which complained she was too inexperienced for the job and too soft on Russia during the ongoing territorial crisis in Ukraine, the EurActiv report said.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to persuade Tusk to take on the job of European Council president, and balance Mogherini's inexperience, the Polish prime minister declined. At the time he said that the uncertain situation in Ukraine and within his own party ahead of next year's general elections would make it difficult for him to step down.
However, shortly before the negotiations between EU leaders started on Saturday afternoon, rumours in the press area of the Council circulated that Mogherini was already on a plane to Brussels. Meanwhile, the official Council broadcaster accidently caught Herman Van Rompuy confirming to the Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades that Tusk would be his successor.
About two hours later, Polish state TV broke the news, that Tusk and Mogherini would respectively replace Van Rompuy and Ashton.
Earlier last week, the Financial Times reported that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had lobbied heavily for Mogherini since the July summit, acknowledging that a "change of tone" towards Russia was needed.
Tusk was put in pole position after David Cameron's spokesperson on Tuesday announced that the UK prime minister was backing Tusk. He was a candidate whose views on reforming the EU could balance out the federalist views of the Commission’s President elect Juncker.
EU centre-left leaders meeting in Paris on Saturday morning decided to back Mogherini as foreign chief, rather than push for a socialist Council president due to a clever strategy by Francois Hollande who wants his nominated Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, to get the responsibility for the EU's economic and monetary affairs.
Juncker, who has the task of matching portfolios to the nominated commissioners, previously stated in July at a meeting with MEPs from the European People's Party that the important economics portfolio could go to a socialist if the Council top job was not given to a socialist or social democrat.
EurActiv asked a senior EU official whether Juncker had already come under pressure from socialists about giving them the prestigious portfolio. "The decision is solely up to Juncker," the official said.
Juncker is expected to present the new commissioners and their portfolios on 9 or 10 September, the senior official said. Whether or not the European Parliament will approve a Commission which looks to be less gender balanced than the last one, with only Mogherini getting one of the EU's top jobs, remains to be seen. But the EU official said that EU member states are well-aware of the problem and "are moving" on the issue.
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