Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel marked the inauguration of their terms Sunday by joining the presidents of the European Parliament and European Central Bank for a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Lisbon Treaty.
“There could be no better day to begin the work,” said von der Leyen, the first woman to serve as European Commission president, the EU’s top executive job. “We are the guardians of the Treaties.”
“Four presidents together,” European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister and managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said. “Two men and two women.”
It was indeed a historic display of gender symmetry for a bloc that aspires to be the global pacesetter in equality but until now has found such balance missing from its own leadership ranks. All four of the previous presidents were men: Jean-Claude Juncker; Donald Tusk; Antonio Tajani; and Mario Draghi.
It was also a highly choreographed show of unity as the new EU leaders prepare to start directing the bloc’s response to its multiple ongoing challenges ranging from Brexit to climate change.
As von der Leyen and Michel began their terms at the Commission and Council, the four leaders gathered at the House of European History, in Brussels’ European quarter, where they posed on the front steps for photographs, took a very brief private tour of the galleries and then gave brief remarks to the press.
“We meet here at the House of European History because it is the right place to relaunch the European project, a project that will take the initiative to modernize European democracy, making it more efficient, and develop new European policies,” European Parliament President David Sassoli said in opening the event.
Sassoli noted it was a “fortunate coincidence” that von der Leyen and Michel’s terms began on the same day as the anniversary of the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, which amended the founding laws of the EU.
He also said it was time for the EU to push forward on important policy goals, including fighting climate change. He announced Parliament would convene a special session on December 11 for von der Leyen and the Commission to present its “European Green Deal,” an ambitious package of initiatives aimed at protecting the planet and cushioning the economic blow to some citizens and industries.
On Monday, von der Leyen, Michel and Sassoli will travel to Madrid to attend the opening of the COP25 global climate conference.
“Europeans want to see real action,” Sassoli said Sunday.
Von der Leyen used her speech to emphasize how far she thinks the EU has come in the decade since the start of the Lisbon Treaty. “Ten years ago, our predecessors were still discussing whether Europe should have a flag or an anthem,” she said. “But in these 10 years, millions of people have taken to the streets waving the European flag — our flag — and millions have been inspired and moved by the “Ode to Joy,” the European anthem, our anthem. Our responsibility is to be a champion, to be a champion for our fellow Europeans with their dreams and their aspirations.”
After the speeches, Sassoli and Michel formally passed a copy of the Treaty to von der Leyen.
Then the four presidents briefly huddled together, smiling, their arms on each other’s shoulders like a team headed out onto the field to take on the opposition.
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