Ursula von der Leyen Isn’t Perfect, but She’s Better Than the Alternative

Opposing the compromise candidate for EU commission president will further empower populists and Euroskeptics.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C), Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (L) attend a cabinet retreat on November 14, 2018 in Potsdam, Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C), Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (L) attend a cabinet retreat on November 14, 2018 in Potsdam, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, members of the European Parliament, the only directly elected institution in the European Union, will decide whether Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, should become president of the European Commission. Europe’s national leaders nominated von der Leyen on July 2, but she still needs to win an absolute majority in the European Parliament—which will require 374 votes from the current total of 747 members. And those votes are not a given.

Von der Leyen can probably rely on the support of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which holds 182 seats. But this is not enough to secure the presidency. She needs the support of the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (154 seats) and the centrist Renew Europe bloc (108 seats) or alternatively the European Greens (74 seats). Her current dilemma is largely the result of her boss’s approach to nominating her. 

In paving the way for von der Leyen’s presidency, a Christian Democrat, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ignored the views of her coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had supported the candidacy of the Dutch politician Frans Timmermans. In response, SPD MEPs have tried to convince colleagues in the European Parliament to shoot down von der Leyen’s candidacy. The European Greens have already announced that they will vote against von der Leyen because she has failed to impress them with her stance on climate protection and her approach to democracy promotion. Although it is likely that the centrists will endorse von der Leyen, it is less clear how the European social democrats (S&D) will vote; some individual MEPs might be tempted to oppose her in the secret ballot. 

Von der Leyen is by no means a perfect candidate. She has not held any EU post, and her professional life has oscillated mainly between the state government in Lower Saxony and the federal government in Berlin, where she has served in Merkel’s governments—first holding the family and labor portfolios and now as defense minister. Her critics worry that her stance on issues such as eurozone reform might be too heavily influenced by German preferences rather than what is good for the EU.

Some MEPs also fear that endorsing von der Leyen will be seen as a slap in the face to European voters. The European Parliament developed a so-called Spitzenkandidat (“lead candidate”) process in 2014, whereby each of the main political groupings in the European Parliament put forward a candidate for the commission presidency. The assumption was that the candidate of the group that won the largest number of seats would be nominated by EU leaders to become commission president. 

The process was an effort to bring greater transparency to a system that had previously relied on backroom deals and to give voters more reason to take part in the parliamentary elections. Two lead candidates, the center-right Manfred Weber and the center-left Timmermans, campaigned across Europe in 2019, but EU leaders failed to agree to put either of them to the European Parliament for approval. Weber was widely seen as too weak, having never held an executive office; Timmermans, who has clashed repeatedly with the leaders of Hungary and Poland over their violations of the rule of law, was seen as too strong. 

Manfred Weber was widely seen as too weak, having never held an executive office; Timmermans, who has clashed repeatedly with the leaders of Hungary and Poland over their violations of the rule of law, was seen as too strong.

Timmermans’s candidacy was unacceptable to a number of Central European governments and to Italy—due to his uncompromising approach toward illiberal leaders—but reports suggest that the opposition of some EPP national leaders was the final nail in his coffin. The EPP leaders insisted that their political family, which won the biggest number of seats in the European elections, should have a first shot in trying to secure a majority in the European Parliament. As a result, the EU’s national leaders eventually pulled a rabbit out of a hat and proposed von der Leyen as their compromise candidate.

Fears that the leaders’ decision undermines the EU’s democratic legitimacy are exaggerated. The most recent survey suggests that only 8 percent of voters went to the polls in the European elections with a view to influencing the choice of commission president. And, ahead of the European elections, only 26 percent of Germans knew who the EPP Spitzenkandidat was—despite the fact that he was their compatriot: Weber.

Von der Leyen’s candidacy is in fact a product of parliament members’ own failure to rally behind one of their lead candidates, rather than an attempt by the EU’s national leaders to undermine the voters’ democratic choice. In 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, the lead candidate of the center-right, got the job because the EPP and S&D immediately backed him and left national leaders with little choice but to nominate him. 

The process of nominating the commission president is more cumbersome this time around because the center-right and center-left together no longer enjoy a majority in the European Parliament. But if MEPs from each of the political groups had believed that the preservation of the lead candidate system was vital to the EU’s democratic legitimacy, they could have joined forces to present national leaders with a single candidate with clear parliamentary support. They failed to do so, leaving the initiative to French President Emmanuel Macron, who was reportedly the key engineer of the von der Leyen compromise. 

Bringing down von der Leyen offers no guarantee that another nominee will be more receptive to the policy preferences of center-left and Green MEPs on, say, the rule of law. If von der Leyen loses the vote in the European Parliament, national leaders will have to propose a new candidate within a month. The row over Timmermans suggests that they will again opt for a candidate who occupies the middle ground on controversial issues. Besides, the leaders who belong to center-right political parties will insist that the job of commission president should go to one of their own. Putting the contested commission presidency aside, they have secured only one job in the EU’s games of thrones so far—that of European Central Bank president, which will go to the current head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde. 

If anything, defeating von der Leyen could play into the hands of the Euroskeptics and populists. They do not have the votes to block the work of the European Parliament, but they will argue that the squabble around von der Leyen’s appointment is evidence that the European Parliament is more interested in a power struggle with national leaders than in addressing the public’s concerns, such as jobs and security. This narrative could be appealing in a number of member states, in particular in Britain (so long as it remains in the EU with a large Brexit Party contingent in the European Parliament), as well as in France, Italy, and Poland, where Euroskeptics topped the polls in the European elections. 

Some observers, like the Financial Times’s Wolfgang Münchau have suggested that von der Leyen might end up politically indebted to Euroskeptics if she has to rely on their support to win Tuesday’s vote. The votes of the European Conservatives and Reformists (62 seats), a group that includes Polish MEPs from the populist Law and Justice party and its allies, could help her prevail if a significant number of social democrats decided to vote against her. Confronted with the prospect of being defeated, she might be vulnerable to the demands of the Polish MEPs, who are the biggest delegation in the group (26 seats) and who will want to trade their support for the EU giving up efforts to tackle democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary. 

If von der Leyen goes down that road, she does not deserve the post; the EU’s democratic values should not be for sale and are worth defending—even at the cost of defeating the first female commission president. If, however, she can make a compelling case for defending those values, she deserves to win. 

Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. Twitter: @AgataGostynska

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