CAN you name an upper-class Conservative politician with impressive golden hair, an engaging personality, and no working majority? No, not Boris Johnson, but his European Union counterpart, Dr Ursula von der Leyen. As incoming EU Commission President, Dr von der Leyen is effectively “Europe’s new Prime Minister”.
Dr von der Leyen’s evident personableness and strong Christian faith might prima facia commend her to readers, but I think that caution is needed: her elevation to Commission President highlights significant problems with today’s EU.
The new Commission President (usually called “VDL”) is a devout Roman Catholic who has traditional personal values. Formerly Germany’s Defence Minister, she belongs to its governing Christian Democratic Union. Dr von der Leyen and Mr Johnson attended the same multi-lingual primary school in Brussels. All of her (seven) children, however, were conceived within a “strong and stable” ecumenical marriage to Heiko, her Lutheran husband of 33 years.
DESPITE her attractive backstory, I find VDL’s rise to power a matter of concern. A little background might explain why.
The Commission President is not directly elected, but, rather, nominated by a majority of national heads of government, and then confirmed, or not, by the European Parliament (EP). Before the 2014 European elections, a modification (the “Spitzenkandidat principle”) was brokered between the different branches of EU governance. The Spitzenkandidat initiative was a new, non-legal “convention” intended to enhance EU democracy and to strengthen its perceived legitimacy.
Previously, the candidate for Commission President emerged from opaque private negotiations between national leaders. The new framework meant that, henceforth, Euro-parties (Continental alliances of Conservatives, Socialists, Greens, and others) would nominate a “lead” (Spitzen) candidate to be the pan-European face for their EP election campaigns. That person would have a presumptive claim for nomination as Commission President should her/his Euro-party secure an EP majority, either singly or in coalition,
The Spitzenkandidat approach represented an evolutionary move towards giving the “popular will” a more direct expression in EU institutions. It sought to foster a shared European public space and political culture, one which could eventually take stronger form in a directly elected Presidency and transnational candidate lists.
The system worked well at first outing in 2014: it gave rise to Commission of Jean Claude Junker, led by the moderately conservative EPP. After fresh elections in May this year, however, the system fell apart completely.
EPP member parties again secured the highest (minority) vote share. But the new parliament’s fractured character, and the EPP candidate Manfred Weber’s poor standing with other parties, led to the break down of the Spitzenkandidat convention.
National leaders decided to ignore the election results and put a name of their choice before Parliament. Dr von der Leyen effectively emerged ex nihilo as the EPP’s new nominee after a series of private deals was struck between premiers of member-states. She leapfrogged over lead candidates from other Euro-parties without her credentials, unlike theirs, being tested by the European electorate.
AT ANY time, this development would be questionable. Amid Brexit and the general rise of anti-EU populist parties, it is very damaging. The manner of VDL’s ascent lends plausibility to complaints about the EU’s “democracy deficit”. Furthermore, if the very modest advance towards democratic accountability which the Spitzenkandidadt principle represented can be so easily discarded, then the chance of deeper reform diminishes severely.
Worse, fracturing of the new EP meant that, to obtain confirmation, VDL had to shower potential supporters with generous, often contradictory, pledges about policy priorities. Securing election even entailed her wooing 15 votes from Hungary’s far-right Fidesz, something that Manfred Weber categorically ruled out before polling day.
VDL has paid a high price for that support. In exchange for it, she has tried hard, but has so far failed, to allot the sensitive “Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy” Commissioner post to Hungary. The prospect of giving Viktor Orbán’s nominee responsibility for assessing Rule of Law standards in potential new member states provoked anger, and a veto, from the EP’s Legal Affairs committee.
The resultant stand-off is one significant reason for the unprecedented delay in the new Commission's start date, from 1 November until sometime in December, while a compromise is negotiated.
More worrying is VDL’s apparent overture to the alt-Right. She has created two new Commissioner posts with controversial briefs. One has been christened “Protecting our European Way of Life”, the other is entitled “Democracy and Demography”. Given the strength of nationalist-identitarian rhetoric warning against a looming “great replacement” of (low-birth-rate) white Europeans by incoming Arab-Muslims, the messaging is, at best, unfortunate.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said this month that “lies . . . have formed the way that we see and understand Europe” (News, 25 October). Bishop Baines is correct, and yet the truth is also worrying. Personally, I am still a Remainer, but, after contemplating the Von der Leyen Commission, only by 52 to 48 per cent.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently studying for a law degree. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.