On Tuesday, the European Parliament approved Ursula von der Leyen to be the new president of the European Commission, the EU’s effective executive branch. She will become the first woman to hold the post, and the least popular from the get-go: she netted a majority of only nine votes (383) over of the necessary 374.
To understand the narrow voting margin, you need to understand that the president of the European Commission is in no way elected directly by the people. He or she is appointed by the heads of state or government of the EU member countries, and then confirmed or rejected by the European Parliament. The EU had come up with a more democratic process, which it called the “Spitzenkandidaten” (German for “lead candidate”). Every European political group, from center-right to far-left, nominates a candidate. The group that receives the most seats in the European Parliament then gets to appoint its lead candidate. This is how the incumbent Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was elected.
This time around, however, the more democratic system was opposed from the start by French President Emmanuel Macron, who axed Manfred Weber, the German politician who, per the “Spitzenkandidaten” procedure, should have gotten the nomination. Since the mechanics of selecting a Commission president aren’t clearly defined in treaties, and since taking elections into account is not exactly popular in Brussels right now, the member states instead agreed on von der Leyen.
That said, von der Leyen is the perfect candidate for the position. Entirely lacking in concrete opinions, she will prove perfectly flexible to the preferences of the Eurocrats in the Berlaymont, the European Commission building that manages more than 30,000 bureaucrats.
Moreover, like Jean-Claude Juncker, she arrives in Brussels with a record of negligence in her country of origin. Whereas Juncker was accused of failing in his duty to inform the Luxembourg Parliament of illegal wiretapping by the intelligence service, von der Leyen was denounced for mismanagement. In October 2018, when she was still Germany’s minister of defense, she admitted that her department had made mistakes in awarding contracts to external consultants, amounting to several hundred million euros.
In 2012, Josep Borrell, former president of the European Parliament and former minister in various Spanish socialist governments, was forced to resign from his position as president of the European University Institute (UIE) following allegations of conflicts of interest. At that time, he was receiving €300,000 as a member of the board of directors of the Spanish sustainable energy company Abengoa, while at the same time promoting biofuels through the institute.
Nevertheless, alongside von der Leyen, Borrell is about to be confirmed as the new head of EU diplomacy. Another perfect candidate.
The scandal in Berlin is not the only reason the vote for Von der Leyen was narrow. It was also that socialists and environmentalists weren’t given sufficient trade-offs (in their eyes). The European Union is all about distributing the large number of positions and policy priorities between the involved parties, and in this case, the left felt shafted.
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A source from the PiS party (the ruling party in Poland) told journalist Oskar Górzyński of the media company Wirtualna Polska that it was a call from Chancellor Angela Merkel that tipped some Polish MEPs over. What did Mrs. Merkel promise them? More agricultural subsidies? The abandonment of the Article 7 sanction procedure against judicial reforms in Poland? Only Merkel knows that and she won’t tell.
In an effort to please the environmentalists, von der Leyen started her first speech by talking about climate change. She suggested reducing EU emissions by 50 percent, “if not 55 percent,” before 2050. Planting trees alone won’t do it, which is why she wants to tackle diesel and air travel, and create tougher emissions trading standards and carbon taxes. So if you were thinking about taking a flight to Europe, or road-tripping by car, you’d be advised to do that sooner rather than later.
How exactly all of this will be paid for remains a mystery. Von der Leyen talks of a green investment bank as a part of a “European green deal” (sound familiar?), which would “trigger investments in the height of 1 trillion [sic] euros”.
On social issues, von der Leyen wants a “social” market economy, including a European minimum wage and an EU unemployment benefit fund, as well as social transfers likely financed by new taxes on energy consumption. She also appealed to the left by championing a gender-balanced College of Commissioners (the EU’s cabinet): “Since 1958 there have been 183 commissioners. Only 35 were women. That is less than 20 percent.”
Von der Leyen is used to giving in to the Left anyway. Back in Berlin, she was part of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, which has not made any serious free market reforms, continues unaffordable social transfers, and massively subsidizes the alternative energy market, resulting in increased electricity prices. So much so that the European Commission says that Germany had the highest household electricity prices in Europe in 2017, the result of phasing out nuclear energy. Environmentalism and socialist policies are ruining EU member states, yet von der Leyen is determined to continue pursuing what didn’t work at home at the supranational level.
Newer and heftier environmentalist proposals, pleasing a left that’s currently holding her in power—by any standard, the worst from von der Leyen is yet to come.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.