Strings Still Attached: von der Leyen’s back-room ascendancy limits her pan-European message

Ursula von der Leyen, Source: Wikimedia Commons

German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen was confirmed as the European Union

(EU) Commission President-elect last Tuesday, after narrowly winning election by the European Parliament to replace Luxembourgish politician Jean-Claude Juncker. A surprise nominee by the European heads of state, Von der Leyen focused her incoming presidency on nurturing deeper European interconnection in the face of rising of nationalism, populism, and Euro-skepticism. “The trust you place in me is confidence you place in Europe,” she said in her acceptance speech. “Confidence in a united and strong Europe… confidence in a Europe that is ready to fight for the future rather than fight against each other.” Despite her goals, von der Leyen’s Europhilic message of unification is crippled before her presidency has even begun. The product of secret horse-trading, VDL’s (as she is also known) nomination, its relation to the European Parliament elections, and her confirmation vote, all put her presidency in a weakened position when it begins in the fall.

The President of the European Commission—the executive branch of the EU which proposes legislation, represents the Union abroad, and executes policy—is considered the “leader” of the EU. He or she is nominated by the European Council, or the collection of European heads of state, and confirmed by a majority vote in the European Parliament. Traditionally, the nomination is conducted behind closed doors and involves corrupt favor-trading, exemplifying the growing “democracy deficit” of the EU which has pushed the people aside in favor of the bureaucrats. To promote transparency, the “Spitzenkandidaten” process was instituted in 2014, wherein European political parties run in the Parliament elections with a “top candidate;” the nominee for the Commission President would be the Spitzenkandidat of the party or coalition which won a majority of seats in Parliament. Jean-Claude Juncker was nominated this way, ultimately allowing European member-state citizens to indirectly elect the Commission President. This system was a necessary transfer of power away from EU capitals and heads of state to the Parliament and the people.

However, this year, the European Council defied the 2014 precedent. Unable to agree on a

Spitzenkandidat, von der Leyen’s name emerged as a surprise in a nomination package including the head of the European Council and European Central Bank (ECB). Not a Spitzenkandidat and without having publicly expressed interest in the job, her nomination is the result of a backroom negotiation between the Germany-France power bloc—Frenchwoman Christine Lagarde was nominated as President of the ECB in the package as well. Von der Leyen emerging as EU leaders’ top choice exemplifies a return to the untrustworthy corruption of closed-door meetings which defined European politics. That characterization of VDL’s nomination—unscrupulous and almost illegitimate—typifies a larger story of European disenchantment with the political status quo. It was highlighted in May’s European Parliament elections, when Europe’s traditional center-right and center-left parties—the European People’s Party (EPP) and Socialists and Democrats (S&D), respectively—lost big for the first time. Voters, looking for alternatives, favored either the nationalist right or pro-European left. The political establishment lost its majority, yet von der Leyen, a member of Germany’s center-right party, represents a continuation of establishment politics. The dissonance between the popular and bureaucratic wishes highlights a rift in European politics, one which von der Leyen’s nomination has widened, thereby weakening her legitimacy amongst European voters.

Hoping to secure a “grand coalition” of the political mainstream, despite the mainstream

being somewhat shunned in the May elections, von der Leyen’s Tuesday address before the

confirmation vote aimed to appeal to her bloc of the liberals, socialists, and greens representing

518 of 751 seats. She spoke of completion of the EU’s capital-markets union, pleasing the

liberals. To woo socialists, she committed to a European minimum wage. A Green Deal to

reduce greenhouse-gas emissions was announced for the greens. But, it did not work. Her razor-thin confirmation vote—only 383 votes to 327, just nine votes above the threshold of victory and below the traditional power-securing 400—places VDL in an uncomfortable position. Many leftist members voted against her nomination because it represented political horse-trading, undermining her government coalition. Clearly, the nature of VDL’s election matters more than her policies. No matter her goals or promises, the way the Commission President-elect secured her position has and will continue to corrode her authority.

Additionally, nationalist and populist members of the European Parliament, viewing her as the lesser of two evils compared to Dutch Socialist and Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans, seem to have secured her victory given the closeness of the vote. The Commission President-elect will enter office in the fall with her power weakened; no longer the unifying, European-minded centrist leader, von der Leyen could be viewed as more beholden to the Euro- skeptical right than her own coalition which is slipping through her fingers.

Ursula von der Leyen, on paper, represents more of the same for European politics.

Continuing the 15-year reign of the center-right in the European Commission for five more

years, VDL is another pro-European bureaucrat. However, her election and the political process

which allowed for her nomination marks a return to the status-quo in Europe—a status-quo

defined by corruption, back-room deals, and power laying at the hands of the powerful, not the

people. While VDL defines her presidency by unification, the means through which she obtained her presidency weakens her message and her ability to achieve it. She has inherited a politically and democratically fractured institution, and her election has only widened the rifts.Time will tell whether von der Leyen can bring Europe together.

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