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EPA/Olivier Hoslet

Ursula Von der Leyen: why controversial choice for EU top job may actually have been the right one

In the end, the members of the European Parliament decided to swallow their pride and elected Ursula von der Leyen to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, even though she had not been a Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate).

Von der Leyen won a total of 383 votes – nine more than required to get the job. She was, nevertheless, forced to rely in part on far-right, eurosceptic parties. A slim margin of fewer than 400 votes is generally seen as a weak mandate that will make it difficult to secure legislative majorities for the five-year term.

Was her selection undemocratic? Proponents of the federal model of European democracy certainly think so. The European Parliament had shortlisted its preferred candidates for the job and had hoped the council, which brings together the heads of government of the member states, would pick from this selection. But in closed-door meetings, the heads of government presented an entirely different set of candidates. The council is not actually obliged to act on the parliament’s suggestions, merely take them into account.

Architects of their own barriers

MEPs themselves are to blame for the demise of the Spitzenkandidaten system. Had they managed to unite behind a candidate, it would have been difficult for the council to override their decision, despite having legal authority to do so. But none of the lead candidates – Frans Timmermans, Margrethe Vestager and Manfred Weber – was able to command a majority.

Weber, the lead candidate of the European People’s Party, which came in first in the European Parliament election, was unable to persuade other pro-EU, centrist parties to support him. Socialists and liberals disliked his lack of experience serving in a national government and several central European governments refused to back him because of his role in suspending Hungary’s Fidesz party from the European Parliament.

Eastern European countries opposed Timmermans because he had led inquiries into rule of law violations in Hungary and Poland. But Timmermans also failed to win the EPP’s support. As the largest parliamentary party group, the EPP fought to select one of their own, even if it meant sacrificing the Spitzenkandidaten system in the process. Vestager had announced her candidacy late and was unpopular in Italy as well as the Visegrad countries (albeit not as unpopular as Timmermans).

Von der Leyen addresses MEPs before their vote. EPA

Technically, those who refused to back Weber and Timmermans could have been overruled by other member states in the council, because none had a blocking minority (representing more than 35% of the EU population). In fact, a key reason why the Lisbon Treaty increased the use of qualified majority voting was to facilitate the EU’s ability to take decisions without the burdensome requirement of unanimity. However, council members chose not to take that route. Instead, the council members stuck with the informal norm of unanimous decision making because they worried that overriding the objectors might provoke them to resort to obstructive political tactics.

Thus, it was a natural step for the council to propose alternative candidates as a compromise. For the Visegrad group of central European nations, the battle against Weber and Timmermans is a pyrrhic victory. They blocked their opponents but still no representative from Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic or Slovakia will get a top EU job. Furthermore, there is no indication that von der Leyen will be more lenient than Timmermans when it comes to prosecuting rule of law violations.

What to expect from the new president

In an effort to secure enough votes, von der Leyen promised something to everyone. To please the liberals, she promised to make Vestager (their preferred candidate) a vice president equal to Timmermans, who is expected to stay on as vice president.

To sweeten the Greens and Socialists, she promised to put carbon neutrality into law during first 100 days and to propose legislation to enforce a “fair minimum wage” in every country.

Her largest concession, though, was to offer the European Parliament the right to initiate legislation. This would remove the European Commission’s monopoly on the process and go a long way to appeasing those who want the elected parliament have a greater say.

By the time the vote rolled around, von der Leyen had almost full support of the EPP and the liberals. The Socialists were divided and the Greens formally opposed.

Had von der Leyen failed to garner sufficient votes, it would have plunged the EU into crisis as there is no obvious alternative candidate who could have commanded a majority in the European Parliament. In Berlin, the grand coalition of Christian Democratic Union (CDU/ CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) might have fallen apart. The SPD would have had a hard time explaining to German voters why it torpedoed the first German Commission president in over 50 years, thereby blocking the first woman to lead the Commission (a woman who, unlike her main male rival, has held senior executive public office for 15 years).

Although von der Leyen was not a lead candidate, her election could be a positive step. To get the position, she has made some bold promises – including on making the election of future presidents more democratic. The parties who supported her will miss no opportunity to hold her feet to the fire.

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