Who did the EU's leaders choose for its top jobs?

(Clockwise from top left) Germany's centre-right defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, managing director of the IMF Christine Lagarde, acting prime minister of Belgium Charles Michel and Spain's foreign minister Josep Borrell.
(Clockwise from top left) Germany's centre-right defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, managing director of the IMF Christine Lagarde, acting prime minister of Belgium Charles Michel and Spain's foreign minister Josep Borrell.PHOTO: AFP , REUTERS , EPA-EFE

BRUSSELS (NYTIMES) - As the European Union's (EU) importance on the world stage grows, its politics are fragmenting: Smaller, more ideological parties, including populists and nationalists, have made gains and weakened the traditional, more centrist parties.

How have the bloc's leaders responded? By calling on strong consensus builders to head up its key institutions. Here are the major names you need to know.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: THE FIRST WOMAN TO LEAD THE EU

Germany's centre-right defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, will be returning to the city of her birth, Brussels, once she's confirmed to lead the European Union's most important institution and her father's former workplace: the European Commission.

A medical doctor and economist by training, she is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right party.

She is likely to bring a fervour for more European integration to the job - music to the ears of much of her 32,000-strong staff of bureaucrats, but less so to skeptical leaders in countries like Hungary and Poland, who would like to keep their nations' priorities front and center.

Ms Von der Leyen served as Germany's first and, so far, only female defence minister, and had previously served in social policy roles like minister of family affairs, working in several of Mrs Merkel's cabinets.

 
 

Her goal of a more integrated Europe - she told the German weekly Die Zeit in 2015 that she wanted her grandchildren to live in a "United States of Europe" - could prove difficult to achieve at a time when a small but important part of the bloc wants to hold back.

She has also expressed support for the idea of a European army, a rather extreme position even among so-called federalists who would like to see some national institutions phased out and replaced with joint EU ones.

One of Ms von der Leyen's top priorities will be overseeing the implementation of some kind of Brexit, though she has lamented Britain's withdrawal from the EU and said Britain has brought much-needed pragmatism to Europe.

CHRISTINE LAGARDE: FROM WASHINGTON TO FRANKFURT

Already one of the world's most prominent policymakers, Ms Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, will head up the European Central Bank.

Ms Lagarde, 63, has led the IMF since 2011 - lifting up its profile, though not without controversy, through the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the eurozone crisis.

Although not a trained economist, Ms Lagarde worked as a prominent corporate lawyer specialising in antitrust with a major Chicago-based firm, Baker & Mackenzie. She rose through the ranks to lead the firm's Western Europe practice and became its first chairwoman in 1999.

 
 

In the mid-2000s, Ms Lagarde turned to public life in France, holding several Cabinet positions during the conservative presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, including that of finance minister. Ms Lagarde is credited with restoring the profile of the IMF after replacing Dominique Strauss-Kahn as its leader after he was accused of sexual assault in a case that was later dismissed.

In 2011 she became entangled in a corruption investigation involving a French businessman, though she was not herself a suspect in the case. In 2016, a French court found Ms Lagarde guilty of negligence in relation to the same case, but the court did not impose a penalty.

Ms Lagarde was named directly to the Central Bank, and does not require a confirmation. She is widely regarded as a tough and energetic negotiator, qualities she will need to coordinate monetary policy and major economic decisions for the 19 nations, encompassing about 340 million people, who use the euro.

CHARLES MICHEL: LIFELONG POLITICS AND COALITION-BUILDING

The new European Council president will be Mr Charles Michel, the acting prime minister of Belgium, which has still not formed a government following national elections in May.

At 43, he is among the youngest European leaders, though he grew up surrounded by politics: His father, Louis Michel, was a well-known liberal politician and himself a former European commissioner.

Mr Michel, who like his father is a member of a liberal party, is used to being the youngest politician in the room. He became a provincial councilor at 18, the youngest member of the Belgian Parliament at 23, a regional minister the next year, and the youngest Belgian prime minister in 2014, at 38.

 
 

As prime minister, he proved effective at keeping together a fragile coalition government of right-wing Flemish nationalists and Walloon liberals for nearly five years. The alliance finally fell apart late last year, when the Flemish nationalists took a harder stance on migration and pulled the plug.

Mr Michel is known for being a deft coalition-builder - a useful skill in Belgium's fractious politics - and for his discreet manner and diplomatic language, which often allows space for compromise.

This skill set will be indispensable as he takes on the tough task of carving out consensus among 28 EU leaders who are ideologically fragmented.

He will likely have to call on his experience dealing with far-right governments and members of nontraditional political parties in his new role, facing rising populism and anti-migrant sentiment across Europe. He will not require confirmation by members of the European Parliament.

A FOREIGN MINISTER FOR 28 COUNTRIES

The role of the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is seen as less prestigious than the other top institutional positions, but its importance has grown, especially as the bloc tries to save its fraying nuclear deal with Iran.

The man nominated to the role is Mr Josep Borrell, 72, a Spanish socialist, former president of the European Parliament and Spain's current foreign minister in the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

 
 

After working in the 1970s as an engineer for Cepsa, a Spanish multinational oil company, Mr Borrell was elected as a city councilor in a suburb of Madrid. He quickly rose through the ranks of the Socialist Party, earning a junior appointment in the national government in the 1980s and becoming an elected member of the Spanish Parliament in 1986.

His EU credentials are strong. In 2004 he led the grouping of socialist parties in the European Parliament elections and was chosen as the institution's president, serving a full term that ended in 2009.

Corruption controversies have haunted Mr Borrell throughout his career. He has stepped down twice amid investigations into political corruption among members of his entourage: Once as Socialist party leader in the late 1990s and a second time as president of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, in 2012.

He made a political comeback in 2017 as one of the most outspoken opponents of Catalan secession from Spain. He was appointed foreign minister in June 2018 and successfully ran for the European Parliament in May, but gave up his seat to remain in the Spanish government. He will require the Parliament's confirmation for the role.