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How Ursula the ‘soloist’ could break Boris’s Brexit dream

Incoming EU chief Ursula von der Leyen insisted the Irish backstop must not be changed today in a major blow for Boris Johnson.

The German defence minister, unveiled as the surprise choice to replace Jean-Claude Juncker last night, has previously called for a ‘United States of Europe’.

And Mrs von der Leyen has moved to burnish her credentials with MEPs – who still need to confirm her in the job – by signalling a tough line on Brexit.

She is reported to have told a private meeting of politicians from the centre-right EPP group that she will not give ground on the crucial backstop issue. ‘It is good if we stick to it, we have done a noble job in the negotiations,’ she said.  

However, Mr Johnson said he believed Mrs von der Leyen recognised that it was ‘time the UK came out’ of the EU and they could hammer out a ‘great, great deal’.  

Mr Johnson has vowed to renegotiate better terms of divorce for the United Kingdom if he is chosen to succeed Theresa May in Downing Street. 

But the decision to select Mrs von der Leyen as president of the European Commission and Belgian PM Charles Michel as president of the European Council represent a potential hammer blow to his hopes. 

Mrs von der Leyen’s appointment still has to be signed off by MEPs, but assuming she takes up the roles, the next occupant of Number 10 will be pouring over her previous remarks on Brexit – and they are unlikely to make for positive reading. 

The surprise eleventh-hour choice for the biggest job in Brussels previously took aim at Mr Johnson and the other leaders of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. 

She claimed Brexit amounted to a ‘burst bubble of hollow promises’ which had been ‘inflated by populists’.   

‘They had promised that Britain would benefit from Brexit,’ she said, according to The Guardian. 

‘The fact is today that Brexit is a loss for everyone.’

Mr Johnson responded to Mrs von der Leyen’s prospective appointment by saying he believed Brussels understood ‘it is time that the UK came out’ of the bloc. 

Speaking on the campaign trail today, he said: ‘I have met Ursula, the new commission president, a couple of times and I very much look forward to working with her if I am lucky enough to get elected but I have no doubt that all our European friends and partners now have a powerful incentive to get this thing over the line.

‘They have got a radical change in the complexion of the European Parliament, 29 Brexit MEPs not exactly showing a great fervour for the mission of federalist integration that Ursula supports, it is time that the UK came out, I think they understand that, I think we are going to get a great, great deal, and we will work very, very hard with all of them.’ 

Mrs von der Leyen is a divisive figure in Germany where her stewardship of the nation’s armed forces, a ministerial role she has held since 2014, has prompted criticism. 

She was reportedly once given the nickname ‘The Soloist’ because of an apparent tendency to act unilaterally. 

Critics have claimed her oversight of the German military has been ‘totally irresponsible’ and her tenure had been a failure amid concerns over insufficient personnel numbers and a lack of equipment.

She has also come under fire for a decision by the German navy to overhaul a historic tall ship – the Gorch Fock – after costs spiralled out of control at a time when the defence budget was being stretched. 

Martin Schulz, a German political opponent of Ms von der Leyen and former European Parliament president, mocked her appointment as he described her as ‘our weakest minister’.  

Her appointment is also likely to spook European politicians who are opposed to the principle of ‘ever closer union’ given the fact she has previously argued in favour of much closer ties between member states. 

Speaking in 2012 she said: ‘My goal is the United States of Europe – on the model of the federal states Switzerland, Germany or USA.’ 

Meanwhile, Mr Michel, who is currently the caretaker prime minister of Belgium after he was forced out in December, said in July 2016 that Mr Johnson lacked ‘the courage to lead’ the UK out of the Brexit ‘black hole’ which he was largely responsible for. 

Mr Michel said at the time that the UK was in a ‘very negative situation’ and that even though the UK was a ‘friend’ he would not accept the EU ‘having to pay the bill’ for Brexit. 

The Financial Times reported he said: ‘I’m only 40 years old but it’s the first time in my life that I’ve seen a democracy in a situation like this . . . [after] this decision there is de facto a form of black hole. What comes next? They have not even the courage to lead and say, it’s this direction.’

He was particularly critical of the former mayor of London who he accused of leaving ‘the floor’ after the Brexit referendum and leaving it to others ‘to explain what we have to do’. 

Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker have both repeatedly stressed that the current Brexit divorce deal cannot be renegotiated and that the crucial issue of the Irish border backstop cannot be removed from the existing agreement. 

Mr Michel has been of the same view. He said in February this year: ‘The backstop is not a detail, both for guaranteeing peace in Ireland and for the integrity of the domestic market, its capacity for economic development, employment and investment.

‘A good deal is on the table, but the British parliament is trying to take us toward a bad deal.

‘The British parliament’s demands on the backstop would weaken the economic development of Europe, a risk for our businesses and our jobs.’  

Mrs von der Leyen will be the first ever female boss of the European Commission if her appointment is rubberstamped by the European Parliament. 

The 60-year-old mother-of-seven has been part of Angela Merkel’s Conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) party since 2005 and her selection was backed by Ms Merkel. 

Mrs Merkel said the nomination of a woman to the top job was a ‘good sign’. 

Meanwhile, International Monetary Fund chairwoman Christine Lagarde got the nomination for the next President of the European Central Bank, in an ‘important statement on gender equality’ while Spain’s socialist foreign minister Josep Borrell has been chosen as chief of EU Foreign Policy. 

The four nominations came after three days of arduous negotiations between the 28 EU nations.

The presidency of the European Parliament is yet to be decided and will be voted on when the body sits in Strasbourg tomorrow.  

Those who land the top four jobs will play a key role in negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU with the next prime minister.

They will be responsible for deciding whether to budge on the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement – something which both Mr Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have said they will seek.  

Frenchwoman Ms Lagarde would also be the first woman elected to her new post, which she would serve in for eight years if successful.   

She has decided to suspend her duties as managing director of the IMF until the results have been confirmed. 

Ms Lagarde will take over from Mario Draghi, who is term in office has been largely plagued by the aftermath of the financial crisis.  

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar commented on the positive steps being made toward gender equality with the Union.

He told reporters: ‘That’s a very important statement that Europe leads on gender equality.

‘It might have taken three days, but it’s a good outcome overall.’

The nominations came after one of the longest summits in recent years, outstripping even all-night negotiations during the Greek debt crisis.

Already plagued by crises like Brexit and deep divisions among nations over how best to manage migration, the leaders had been keen to show that they could take quick decisions and that the European project remains important to its citizens.

But they struggled to establish a delicate balance between population size and geography – an even mix of countries from the north and south, east and west, and ensure that at least two women were nominated.

Mr Tusk had said he hoped that someone from a central or eastern European member state would be voted in as president of the European Parliament.

Despite deep tensions, some tantrums by leaders behind the scenes and even public criticism of his handling of the summit, Mr Tusk said: ‘Five years ago we needed three months to decide, and still some leaders were against. 

‘This year it was three days and nobody was against.’

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