international analysis and commentary

The emerging EU leadership at a glance


“United in diversity” could have not been a better motto for the European Union these days. From Polish conservatives to Italy’s Five Star Movement and even Scottish nationalists, many different caucuses of the European Parliament have claimed a crucial role in electing Ursula von der Leyen at the helm of the next European Commission. A former Defence Minister of Germany and a faithful ally of Angela Merkel who has built all her political career at a national level but forging good relations with peers worldwide, von der Leyen is the first woman and second German national appointed to the EU top job, 60 years after Walter Hallstein, who kicked off his mandate in the year she was born, by coincidence both right in the heart of Brussels. A predestined kid, one might say.

Von der Leyen has won the confidence of the Parliament by a slim majority of nine votes on top of the 374 needed to reach the absolute majority required for the nomination of the President of the Commission. The latter number would have been slightly larger if only Spanish authorities had allowed the three Catalan separatist MEPs who are either in jail or self-exiled to take office. 327 votes were cast against, while 22 MEPs abstained.

All in all, the pro-EU coalition that two weeks before had elected David Sassoli, from Italy’s center-left PD, as president of the Parliament has proved to be still working, yet fragile. On paper, the alliance could have counted on roughly 100 votes more. If Brexit had already happened, von der Leyen would have had serious headaches in reaching the threshold (that would have been of around 350 votes), as the British Remainers have been among her supporters too.

Although it was a secret ballot, a scheme of those who have supported von der Leyen can be drawn, based on prior declarations of vote. Fellow MEPs from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP, 182 seats) were quite unanimously backing the new President, some of them despite her commencement speech rather leaning towards the left. The same applied to the liberal-centrist Renew Europe (RE, 108 seats), the former ALDE that merged with newly-elected Macronistas MEPs from France. The centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D, 154 seats) were significantly split with the relative majority of the Group led by Spanish and Italians (20 and 19 seats respectively) supporting von der Leyen and working to make sure she could get a viable majority, while Germany’s SPD, that still retains an influential role in the Group with several committees’ spokespersons, strongly against. Besides domestic political reasons (despite in Berlin the SPD is a governing partner of von der Leyen’s CDU/CSU), such a decision was mainly instrumental to the defence of the Spitzenkandidat process – first and only used following the 2014 elections – according to which the Parliament commits to vote as Commission President only one of the lead candidates appointed by European political parties ahead of the vote.

The Greens, that have repeatedly been identified among the winners of last May’s elections Europe-wide, had abruptly discontinued a dialogue with von der Leyen after unsatisfactory responses during a Group meeting hosting the nominee. Such a decision was confirmed also at a later stage, in spite of the several “green” proposals put forward by the candidate as an integral part of her policy priorities.

In the end, together with Italy’s League, the cornerstone of the newly-established rightist-populist Identity and Democracy (ID) Group with its 28 MEPs, the SPD was the other only ruling party in a EU Member State which openly turned the back on von der Leyen.

The German nominee – a mother of seven and a doctor by background – has not followed the wary advice of those who would have rather postponed the vote until September, instead speeding up the pace of negotiations with political groups in the Parliament and putting together an agenda that sounds ambitious at least in its headlines. Among them, it is worth mentioning the commitment to work on a Green New Deal for Europe in the first 100 days of the mandate (i.e., by January next), the perspective of revitalising the reform of asylum law, the intention to further implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, and the promise to build a special relationship with the Parliament, making sure that a legislative proposal is presented by the Commission when the Chamber asks so.

Looking at the broader picture, as strange as it may sound, the success of von der Leyen might have been powered by an uncommon axis between Rome and Warsaw, with both the Italian and Polish prime ministers actively supporting her name in the European Council when it came out as a compromise solution in early July, despite the fact that both governments do not miss a chance to blame Germany for any of Europe’s malfunctioning. Such a move has then been mirrored by the respective delegations in the European Parliament: Italy’s Five Stars with 14 MEPs and Poland’s PiS (Law and Justice) with 26.

Following the disintegration of the EFDD Group (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) they co-founded in the past legislative term with Nigel Farage’s Brexiteers, Five Stars are now sitting in the backbenches as non-attached members (NI), along with a German satirist, a Greek neo-Nazi and a Croat squatter. Negotiations with political families in the Parliament were intense ahead of the inauguration of the new term, both with former partners and with new stars such as the Greens. However, they led nowhere. This means that Five Stars MEPs cannot be in charge of any dossier either as rapporteurs or shadow rapporteurs, a job that is reserved to representatives of political groups. In spite of such situation, Five Stars were still able to elect one of the 14 vice-presidents of the Parliament – a novelty for a non-affiliated grouping.

The cordon sanitaire originally put in place against ID has also been used to prevent some controversial MEPs from PiS and even Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz (a suspended member of the EPP) to appoint committees’ chairs or vice-chairs, in light of the ongoing disputes between Brussels on the one side and Warsaw and Budapest on the other concerning the breach of the rule of law at a national level. Former Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło has been rejected twice as chairwoman of the committee on Employment and Social Affairs, before giving way to a fellow MEP of the right-wing European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR) to take over the post.

By the end of the summer, all Member States will have to appoint their designated commissioners. It is worth reminding that according to the Treaty of Lisbon the Commission shall consist of a number of members corresponding to two thirds of the number of Member States, unless a unanimous decision of the European Council decides otherwise. Heads of State and government followed this lead in 2012, by confirming that the Commission would have continued to consist of a number of members equal to that of Member States, a decision that still stands. Von der Leyen made it clear in her speech before the Parliament that she is determined to ensure gender balance in the college of commissioners, expecting Member States to nominate an equal number of men and women.

In early Autumn, hopeful commissioners will then be auditioned by the competent committees of the European Parliament. Although this is not a procedure stipulated in the Treaties (according to which the Commission as a body is responsible to the Parliament), the practice has been formalised in the  Rules of Procedure.

Three times already, one per legislative term, there have been cases of commissioner-designates withdrawing their candidature after a negative result of the parliamentary hearings (it happened to Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione in 2004, Bulgaria’s Rumiana Želeva in 2010 and Slovenia’s Alenka Bratušek in 2014). Having in mind how fragmented and politically instable the new Parliament is, it is very likely that the new MEPs will ask either for the head of certain commissioners or for a reshuffle in their portfolios, especially if controversial profiles are put forward by Eurosceptical governments.

A new test of interinstitutional maturity now awaits both the parliamentary majority and Ursula von der Leyen, which will have to prove to be firm but constructive in negotiations over the future set-up of the European Commission vis-à-vis national governments and the Council.