Not all is well in Brussels

Published in (Wellington), 23 July 2019

All’s well that ends well. There is a temptation to sum up the resolution of the European Union’s personnel-finding troubles in such a Shakespearean way.

Since the elections to the European Parliament in May, filling all the vacant top jobs in a satisfactory way seemed nigh impossible. With the election of Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen to the presidency of the European Commission, an institutional crisis has been avoided – just.

Von der Leyen could well turn out to be an inspired choice for the EU top job. The position may suit her better than the German defence ministry, in which she was troubled by minor scandals and chronic under-funding.

If there ever was a German globalist politician, it is von der Leyen. Born in Brussels as the daughter of a German EU bureaucrat (and later state premier of Lower Saxony), she studied in London and worked in California. Having spent almost a third of her life outside Germany, the medical doctor and mother of seven is fluent in French and English.

Still, it is hard to be enthusiastic about her appointment. And that has little to do with von der Leyen and more with the circumstances of her elevation to EU high office.

There is no way of denying it but as President of the European Commission von der Leyen is not even second choice. She was the candidate born out of desperation because none of the other options worked.

To make matters worse, there is only a loose link between the European Parliament elections and her elevation to high office. Von der Leyen’s name was not on the ballot paper; she did not campaign in the election; and nobody talked about her as a potential candidate.

Instead, the elections to the European Parliament were conducted under the pretence that European voters would have a democratic choice between two lead candidates (often referred to by the German term Spitzenkandidaten), one for each major bloc of parties.

For the centre-right, the European People’s Party (EPP) had nominated Manfred Weber, the leader of their parliamentary party. For the centre-left, the Party of European Socialists it was Frans Timmermans, the First Vice President of the European Commission. One of them was supposed to become the next President.

Much had been made of this duel between Weber and Timmermans. The personalisation was designed to lift the profile of the European Parliament elections and increase turnout.

Voters should know that their votes really mattered and that the result determined who would lead the European Commission over the coming five years.

Indeed, turnout increased by 8 percentage points compared to 50 percent. For the first time, there was a sense of a genuine choice around this election. Voters may have genuinely believed that their votes mattered. But any such beliefs were shattered just days after the vote.

What happened after the election was a brutal awakening to EU realpolitik. Since the two major blocs had no combined majority in Parliament, they needed support from other parties such as the liberals or the greens. Yet, Parliament proved unable to gather behind either of the Spitzenkandidaten – other than to say it should be one of them as a matter of principle. It was an abrogation of Parliament’s power by Parliament.

The EU’s heads of state and government were then eager to fill the gap left by Parliament. No longer bound by choosing between Weber and Timmermans, they were following their respective national interests.

French President Emmanuel Macron quickly ruled out Weber, whom he deemed too inexperienced. Eastern European governments blackballed Timmermans because of his past insistence on the rule of law in relation to member states like Poland and Hungary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was caught in the middle having to pretend support for her candidate Weber as long as practicable.

The final push for von der Leyen, ironically, had nothing to do with Merkel. The idea originated from a most unusual coalition of France’s Macron and Hungary’s Victor Orbán – and from their perspective it made imminent sense. It allowed Merkel to shift her support to a candidate other than Weber or Timmermans.

Merkel probably did not require much convincing that von der Leyen was a good choice. The two have known each other for a long time, and though von der Leyen was once seen as a potential successor to Merkel, her troubles at the defence ministry had made her a weak link in Merkel’s cabinet. Shifting her to Brussels was an attractive option for Merkel.

As if to demonstrate how strange European politics can be, out of 28 EU heads of government, Merkel was the only one to abstain when nominating von der Leyen. That was because her Social Democrat coalition partners were opposed to the nomination since they were still clinging on the Spitzenkandidaten concept and supported Timmermans (who, by then and like Weber, had given up on his candidacy).

The final twist in the saga then happened in the European Parliament where von der Leyen still needed to find a majority. She also needed to counter the stench of having been nominated by Hungary’s Orbán, whose Fidesz party was suspended by the EPP over its right-wing populism.

Von der Leyen responded to this by presenting herself as the very opposite of a right-wing populist. She spoke French, English and German. She talked of herself as a convinced European. She emphasised what she wanted to about gender equality and climate change. It was the perfect application speech – and it could have been delivered by any Social Democrat or Greens candidate.

But this is the EU, and so von der Leyen was elected with the votes of Hungarian right-wingers, Italian populists, Polish nationalists and against the votes of the Greens and the German social democrats.

European politics is a strange business. Where voters can choose candidates, who disappear after the elections. Where right-wing governments nominate left-sounding candidates. Where a German minister gets nominated against the abstention of the German government.

No wonder European voters never turned out in strong numbers for the European Parliament elections. And after this experience, they are less likely to do it again in 2024.

For the time being, however, at least the EU can go back to work after months of political circus. Not all that ends well is well. But at least it’s over.

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