Why Ursula von der Leyen is not the disaster that some claim

July 19, 2019

This week in the European Parliament, MEPs very narrowly approved the Council’s nomination for President of the Commission: Ursula von der Leyen. This has caused some concern among those who argue that her appointment is evidence of a business-as-usual approach from the EU, or even that she should be seen as a Juncker Mark II. I understand this sentiment; indeed it was one I shared in my immediate reaction to the announcement of her as a candidate. Certainly, her name was a bolt from the blue. The entire purpose of the Spitzenkandidat process is to produce candidates for the prestigious role that can be tested in public debate. Ultimately, her nomination is the product of an inadequate system that requires comprehensive reform. But I want to set out why I and other Labour MEPs came to the reluctant decision that the right thing to do was to approve her nomination.


It is important to recognise the failings of the system. The EU is intergovernmental, despite what the eurosceptics claim. It is the only set of intergovernmental institutions in the world with democratic oversight, but it remains a body where governments set out the priorities and everybody else will attempt to influence and shape them. If the Commission President were directly elected, the EU would be decried as a superstate. If there were no approval process of MEPs for the Commission President, it would rightly be derided as undemocratic. The current arrangement is, as ever, a compromise. I would want to move towards a more direct system of public approval, but mine is not (yet) the settled view. The result is an imperfect procedure where 28 governments decide on the candidate they can all - in some cases begrudgingly - support.


I do not believe we could have got a leader that was very politically different to von der Leyen, under this process. If that sounds defeatist, hear me out. A compromise candidate, who can necessarily overcome the objections of governments of the left and right, is going to be underwhelming from any party political view. They will never be committed to delivering a pure socialist or Christian democrat agenda for the EU. Ultimately, they take their cue from national governments in the first case, and then from political alliances in the Parliament thereafter. Whatever the political issue of the day, it is the fight within the European Parliament and the member states that will determine the outcome, not whoever the Commission President happens to be.


A day before the vote, Ms von der Leyen released a letter outlining key commitments she would be prepared to make to the Socialist grouping in the Parliament. Her attempts to reach out then lost her the support of the right-wing ECR group. My analysis of this move was that a future candidate - bearing in mind the constraints I outlined above - would have viewed her failure to secure the support of the EP as evidence that moving to the left is a vote loser. The subsequent candidate would then have been likely to move towards the right, and would feel under no obligation to satisfy the political demands of the Socialist Group.


The narrow win that Ms von der Leyen secured this week will put a great deal of pressure on her and her team to meet the terms of the letter she sent to the Socialist Group. Unlike the process when it comes to Brexit, the Commission President designate will have to submit to a confirmatory vote in October, whereby the Parliament can approve or reject her entire team. Once again, the constraints of an intergovernmental approach come into play (the individual Commissioner nominations will come from member state governments) but the appropriation of portfolios and responsibilities will be key. The narrowness of her victory puts the Socialist and Democrat Group in a uniquely powerful position. Her team will be acutely aware that for the new Commission to take office in November, they will need to ensure that social protection and climate policies are the cornerstone of the new Commission’s programme and ensure that the portfolios for progressive Commissioners are correspondingly senior.


Is this situation ideal? Of course not. We would all have wanted Frans Timmermans as Commission President. Frans’ campaign in the European elections prioritised the interests of young people, those left behind by austerity, and those at the sharp end of technological and environmental change. But the S&D group did not come first, and the EPP’s candidate, Manfred Weber, was so universally unpopular (including in his own group). With the support of the Greens and Liberals, it might have been possible to have Frans; but again everything is subject to the approval of national governments. Orban’s crowing that he won this battle is galling, but it’s also nonsense. Yes, he may well have played a tiny part in scuppering Timmermans, Vestager et al, but the idea that von der Leyen is somehow an ally of his is absurd. Nationalist populists will always claim victory, whatever happens. We would do well not to rise to their bait by handing the credit to them.


Our decision was not an easy one. And contrary to some claims we did listen extremely carefully, most of all to our German SPD colleagues. Brexit did play a part in our thinking - not least the fact that von der Leyen is predisposed to give the UK more time to sort out this mess if necessary - but our overall conclusion was based on the likely and preventable alternative political scenarios.


Look at the reaction of Timmermans himself, and of our German colleagues. He tweeted on the day of the vote that von der Leyen had adopted many of the tenets of his campaign in her written commitments and our German colleagues spoke of their relief that her approval had been so narrow. Given the imperfect tools a pan-European body such as the Parliament has in a predominantly intergovernmental set of institutions, I think we did make the right calculation. Remain and Reform are not just buzzwords. But if we are truly serious about reform, let’s be clear about where the failings lie. They are not so much in the individual decisions but in the imperfect balance between Council and Parliament.


The future is Europe. And a reformed Europe demands a proper discussion about how we build a much closer relationship between the European institutions and EU regions, cities and citizens.

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