Von der Leyen and EU Democracy

This week in Strasbourg (14-18 July 2019) saw the conclusion of the first part of the European Union’s ‘transition’ from one administration to the next. The UK media rarely explains how this all works. It’s not really that complicated – so here’s a quick explanation of what has happened and how.

The European Union has three Presidents: the President of the Parliament, akin to the Speaker of the House of Commons and elected by MEPs; the President of the Council, appointed by the member states, to speak and negotiate on their behalf; and the President of the Commission; the effective boss of the Commission - the EU’s civil service, who is nominated by the Council and ratified, or not, by MEPs.

The Parliament President, a lot like the Speaker of the Commons, tends to alternate between the largest two parties in the Parliament. This time the Socialist and Democrat Group (S&D) had its turn; both the Peoples’ Party (Christian Democrats - EPP) and ‘Renew Europe’ (the Liberals Re-branded for the benefit of President Macron) declined to put up their own candidates. Three other groups, however, did - so there was an election by secret ballot. The S&D candidate, David Sassoli, was a few votes short of the 376 necessary (50% plus 1 of the MEPs) but made it on the second ballot. The Green candidate, the popular German, Ska Keller, did well on the first round but not well enough - the first ballot is a sort of ‘tone in the water’ vote where MEPs express a view. The rules allow new candidates to come in at the third ballot if nobody has a majority. Elected MEPs elected their President – for some reason Ann Widdicombe thinks this is undemocratic.

The Council choose their own President. It has been till now a former Prime Minister of one of the member states - the last was Donald Tusk from Poland, the next will be Charles Michel, a Liberal from Belgium. Elected governments nominate and elect their President – for some reason Nigel Farage thinks this is undemocratic.

The Commission is more complicated. The President serves both the Council and the Parliament, Commissioners act as 'honest broker' in negotiations between two. These are the famous ‘unelected bureaucrats’. Except these days they are not unelected. Only the elected governments of the member states acting together have the right to nominate. To succeed their nominee must then get a majority (376) of MEPs voting positively in a secret ‘approve of reject’ ballot. If the candidate is rejected the Council nominates a new candidate. For the first time in 2014 the ‘spitzenkandidate’ idea was introduced to create a more direct link between the voters and the top job. The ‘lead candidate’ from the group gaining the most seats in the Parliament would put themselves forward as Commission President and attempt to get the approval of Council and a majority in Parliament.

All this was great in theory. The 2014 election produced a fairly clear outcome from which Jean Claude Junker was installed despite shouting from the sidelines by David Cameron (one of his many mistakes). The 2019, however, election produced an unclear outcome where the EPP lost seats and hold a relatively narrow lead over S&D with the Liberals/Macron centre block gaining ground. The EPP lead candidate, Manfred Weber, a charisma free German from the mildly eccentric and rightist CSU - the Bavarian ally of Frau Merkel’s CDU - failed to get approval in Council and was not going to get a majority in Parliament either. Logically, the nomination would have gone to Franz Timmermans, S&D Netherlands Commissioner. Timmermans, popular, charismatic and highly skilled, had a good chance of getting a majority in Parliament but had made key enemies in Eastern Europe where he had led the ‘Article 7’ procedure seeking to act against the authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland (two of the four ‘so-called’ Visigrad countries) who accordingly blocked his nomination but importantly seven governments in addition to the Visigrads were opposed to Timmermans.

To break the deadlock Ursula von der Leyen ‘emerges’. This is convenient for lots of reasons – a German for a German, EPP for EPP, something Merkel and Macron can agree upon and, importantly for many, the first woman to lead the Commission. Unanimity (or at least without opposition) in the Council and it is over to the Parliament.

Issues clearly existed around VDL: her reputation as a minister in Germany is not great; she is perceived to be ‘on the right’ of German politics; she was not a spitzenkandidate; she isn’t a sparkling orator. Others however argued her merits: ability to compromise; some landmark legislation under her belt in Germany; the more than symbolic importance of female leadership (and the question of whether or not a man would be subject to such a critical eye – remember Jean Claude Juncker was the leader of a country, but a country the size of Cornwall).

Before the Parliament votes on the Commission President there are two weeks of hearings and effective negotiations about the President’s programme for the Commission. In this period VDL had to construct a majority in the House. With the far right and far left blocks voting against her, and the EPP and RE backing her, the decision depended upon the Greens, S&D and the ‘national Conservatives’ of the ECR. VDL initially appeared to be tilting right but produced a programme with a range of concessions to S&D and climate policy. As usual the Greens choose purity over engagement and quickly determined not to back VDL, however the ECR, now dominated by the governing Polish Law and Justice party, took offense over VDL’s commitments on rule of law, environment and her willingness to offer Franz Timmermans the first Vice President job with his choice of portfolio, so declined to give their support. The decision depended on S&D which split but just enough VDL’s way to give her a wafer thin 9 vote majority.

That’s not entirely that. VDL now has to produce a Commission around a clear work programme that gets the approval of Parliament in the autumn. Battles lie ahead, not least over populist and national conservative nominations (each country nominates a Commissioner). It has to be expected that one of more will be ‘negotiated’ out of place but the entire Commission could yet fail to be ratified. This observer considers that unlikely.

Had VDL failed to gain Parliament’s endorsement it would have sent several messages: first, a powerful democratic statement – not only could the EU’s directly elected institutions wield a punch, they could be seen to defend an agreed process; second, European Parliament Elections would have been seen to be meaningful; and third, the appropriate judgement would have been issued to the ‘continuity candidate’ of the Junker Commission. On balance this was an approach I could have supported, recognising the risks. EPLP Leader, Richard Corbett MEP explains why UK Labour MEPs took the other course here.

However, the very valid question had that been the outcome would have been ‘what happens next?’ It would be entirely wrong to conclude that rejecting VDL would have breathed life into the corpse of the Timmerman’s candidature – not a chance. The uncomfortable reality that many in S&D just can’t see is that the Socialists lost the elections too. At present the left is just not strong enough in Europe to foist its candidate on an unwilling centre-right. In the Council the Visigrad bloc and assorted populists remain a reality; the left, despite its Iberian victories, remains historically weak. Despite having a good and able woman as Commission VP in Mrs Vesthager, the liberals already had a nominee as Council President, so without undoing the entire package the undoubted reality would have been another EPP nominee.

Another set of approval hearings and renewed courtship of the political groups would have followed and, having failed to win by being seen to court the left, the new EPP candidate would have been obliged to tack right. Either way the rejection of VDL would have left Europe embroiled in weeks of infighting and uncertainty. In the context of huge uncertainty in the UK, with convulsions over Parliamentary sovereignty and election of Boris Johnson, it was important that there was some stability at least in the leadership of the EU. It was in nobody’s interest to have an extended crisis of leadership during this already precarious time for the UK and the EU. At Westminster this seemed to be the view of the Labour front bench as well as of both Tories and Liberal Democrats.

The election of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission, although contentious, demonstrates that democracy is alive in the EU – despite its critics. She won by 9 votes and it could easily have gone the other way. It was a compromise, of course, but then it always is, and in a situation where there is no majority for a single group, has to be. Any left of centre nominee would also have to make compromises to gain a majority. The result also denied the far right having the ‘success’ they would undoubtedly have claimed.

So we have, subject to confirmatory vote, the first woman President of the Commission and the S&D group has, ironically, demonstrated clear influence in a Parliament where they form an essential part of any legislative majority.