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Finland misses out on top EU posts as women make breakthroughs

Finland fielded two strong contenders to become ECB president -- former EU commissioners Olli Rehn and Erkki Liikanen.

French IMF chief Christine Largarde was selected to take over from Mario Draghi as head of the European Central Bank. Image: Julien Warnand / EPA

Finland has failed to crown its six-month presidency of the European Union Council by securing any of the top EU posts up for grabs in Brussels.

However in a major break with tradition, women made major strides and secured the backing of EU heads to lead the traditionally male-dominated positions of head of the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB).

Finland had two strong contenders in the running for the position of ECB president -- former European Commissioners Olli Rehn and Erkki Liikanen.

After three days of wrangling during a summit in Brussels however, French head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde was selected to take over from Mario Draghi to lead the financial institution -- the first woman to do so if her nomination is confirmed by the European Parliament.

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If confirmed, Ursula Von der Leyen will become the first woman to lead the European commission. Image: Hayoung Jeon/Epa

Similarly, German defence minister and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, Ursula von der Leyen, emerged as president-designate of the European commission, the EU's executive branch.

Prime minister Antti Rinne said that Finland had actively campaigned on behalf of Rehn and Liikanen in bilateral discussions during the meetings.

"It just didn't work out with this lineup," Rinne commented after the summit, adding that Finland could not have done more to advance its candidates.

"Perfect gender balance"

Other key positions filled following the protracted negotiations included that of Spanish socialist foreign minister Josep Borrell, who was appointed EU foreign and security policy chief. Meanwhile Belgian prime minister Charles Michel was nominated to become head of the European Council.

Outgoing European Council chair Donald Tusk hailed "the perfect gender balance" of the outcome and said that current EU Commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans would become EU commission vice presidents.

"I'm very pleased with the balance between men and women found in this meeting. It's the first time a woman will become president of the commission," Rinne remarked.

The final lineup of nominations for the top jobs in the EU was remarkable in that it did not include many of the favourites up for consideration.

Even before EU Parliament elections in May, EU parties named candidates for the leadership positions. Based on the outcome of the Europarliament elections, Manfred Weber, the candidate put forward by largest parliamentary group, the European People's Party (EPP), should have become commission president. However Weber withdrew his candidacy in the final stages of the summit in support of Von der Leyen.

MEPs have final say

Members of the European Parliament will vote to elect a new president on Wednesday. They will also confirm Von der Leyen's nomination. It may not be smooth sailing though as the election injected into the body a number of populists eager to shake things up.

Von der Leyen has been German defence minister since 2013 and was previously responsible for labour, social affairs, family, women's and youth affairs portfolios. Apart from her native German, she is also fluent in French and English.

Lagarde meanwhile is by training a lawyer specialising in competition and labour markets. She is a former French finance minister and was the first woman to head up the IMF when she took over from her scandal-plagued predecessor Dominique Strauss-Khan, who resigned over allegations of sexual impropriety and assault.