3 July 2019

The EU commission stitch-up shows Brussels at its very worst

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The European Union awaits a new leadership team.

A month after the European elections, Europe’s Head of States agreed yesterday to propose Geraman defence minister Ursula von der Leyen as new Commission President. The Belgian Charles Michel will be the new Council President, Spaniard Josep Borrell the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs (aka the EU’s Foreign Minister), and France’s Christine Lagarde is the new president of the European Central Bank.

The deal is not quite sealed yet – the European Parliament will still need to agree to the appointments in votes in the next weeks. While there is much to say about the candidates themselves (much of it not overly flattering), the process of how this leadership group became the compromise agreement is more telling about the current state of the EU. A flurry of clandestine back room deals showed Brussels’ semi-democratic tendencies at their very worst.

Let’s back up for a moment, however, to see how we got here.

Before this week’s shenanigans the long-held assumption, though one always moderated by considerable doubts, had been that Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor would be one of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten, i.e. a lead candidate of one of Europe’s political families. That meant a choice between Manfred Weber, who ran for the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), and Frans Timmermans from the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

It was a surprise, then, to find Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager throwing her hat into ring after the elections. She was one of six lead candidates from the centrist, crypto-liberal ALDE (now rebranded as Renew Europe), but after she found out that her group had made big gains in the elections, she suddenly considered herself a Spitzenkandidat as well.

Weber was in pole position at this point. After all, his EPP, though having lost a significant number of seats, was still the biggest party. But attempts were very quickly made by others to prevent him from becoming the new Commission President, or taking up any other significant role for that matter.

These efforts Were spearheaded by Emmanuel Macron, who is not fond of either Weber or the Spitzenkandidaten system itself – he has had it in for the latter ever since his supplementary idea of transnational lists was defeated in the Strasbourg Parliament last year. When both the S&D and Renew Europe groups vowed to never vote in Weber’s favour, it was clear his chance had gone.

It was late last week when the backroom meddling and horse-trading truly commenced. Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament and member of the German Social Democrats, got in touch with his S&D colleagues to make Timmermans the new favourite (which he eventually was for all of a day) in exchange for Weber getting the Parliament Presidency for a full five years, instead of just two and a half.

Quite how one of the most unsuccessful German politicians in recent years thought that he had the authority to become so involved in this process is unclear. Back home, Schulz had earned the Social Democrats such an abysmal result in the elections of 2017 that even within the party, he was demoted to a simple member of the Bundestag with no further tasks.

The result was, however, the Osaka agreement from the G20 summit, which was strongly supported by Angela Merkel. It was curious to see the Chancellor, herself a member of the EPP, throwing her weight behind Timmermans, a candidate from the rival S&D. Less surprising was the decidedly chilly reaction the plan got from her EPP colleagues when she presented it on Sunday. That meant Osaka was off the table. It also meant both Macron and Viktor Orbán had triumphed: Macron by preventing Weber, and Orbán by preventing Timmermans, but both for killing off the Spitzenkandidaten.

The agreement that emerged yesterday featured four names that had never been on a ballot and would ordinarily have been considered odd choices for these positions, were it not for the intervention of heads of state.

In the case of Lagarde, of course, she would never have been on a ballot in any case – the ECB is, after all, at least officially politically independent. Nonetheless, it is especially curious that someone should become President of a politically independent central bank when they are not an economist, but a politician.

Charles Michel, the new Council President, has only recently been defeated in the Belgian federal elections, where his party took a piffling seven per cent of the vote. His days as Prime Minister were clearly numbered. The general consensus is Michel would have stood no chance of becoming Council President if Dutch PM Mark Rutte had shown interest in the position.

Then there is Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister who is to become the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs. He was fined €30,000 last year for illegal activities relating to insider trading. Perhaps more worrying are his stated opinions on foreign policy, which are a bit eccentric, to say the least. In 2018, for instance he noted that the Americans had had to “kill four Indians” to achieve their independence. And while it is one thing to defend the nuclear deal with Iran, as most EU leaders have done, his defence was that “Iran wants to wipe out Israel; nothing new about that. You have to live with it.”

Finally, there is von der Leyen, the new Juncker. Born in Brussels and a mother of seven, she is one of Merkel’s longest standing allies. She was Merkel’s family minister from 2005 to 2009, health minister from 2009 to 2013, and has been defence minister since then. Her work in this role has been controversial and almost universally considered a failure. Indeed, there have been a flurry of demands recently for her resignation.

The German army’s condition on her watch can best be summed up as “fighter jets and helicopters that don’t fly. Ships and submarines that can’t sail”. Von der Leyen is also facing an investigation for wrongdoing over her use of consultant firms, which have received millions of euros. In the words of Politico’s Matthew Karnitschnig, her tenure has seen “systematic corruption at the ministry”. Nor is she popular among the army top brass after accusing the Bundeswehr of weak leadership in 2017.

On the European level, she has been known for her federalist vision of a United States of Europe, which she has been advocating for many years: “I certainly envision that the Europe of my children and grandchildren will not just be a loose alliance of governments invested in national interests.” This also includes a defence union, which many see as the first step to to a European army.

As long as the European Parliament rubberstamps the plan, this quartet will be heading up the European institutions: a politician-turned-monetary-specialist for a non-political central bank, an unsuccessful Prime Minister who was on his way out, a foreign policy expert who thinks demands for the annihilation of Israel aren’t that big a deal and a highly unpopular and failing defence minister who everyone wanted to step down from her position (though not by getting a promotion).

The European people, of course, have no choice to say anything different. Von der Leyen was not on the ballot or even in the discussion when they went for the polls. And yet, she is close to becoming the most powerful person in Brussels soon thanks to totally untransparent backroom deals by EU leaders. If the EU wanted to put together a plan for Europeans to lose faith in the European project and its supposedly liberal democratic nature, Brussels and head of states could have not done it any better.

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Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute