Electing Ursula


From top: German Defence minister Ursula von der Leyden (left) with Joan Burton at an EU summit in Dublin Castle in 2013; Shane Heneghan

The last European summit in Brussels had a solution. A neat, gender balanced package was cooked up to occupy four of the main top jobs in the European Union.

The initial English language media reporting of this spoke as if the appointments- particularly that of the proposed new head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen- are a done deal. They are not.

It’s worth looking at the treaty in regard to the appointing of a new head of the commission. Article 17.7 of the Lisbon Treaty states-

“Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members.”

This text has been interpreted generously by the Parliament to mean that the Council (the EU heads of government meeting in Brussels) should nominate one of the main groups “spitzenkandidaten” or lead candidates from the European election campaign.

A request that is very easily circumvented as European elections, by their very definition, cannot be conclusive.

But in nominating Von Der Leyen, the current German defence minister,- a name that has never been mentioned with regard to one of the main jobs in Brussels they have shown a certain level of contempt for the notion that the European Elections should perhaps influence the future direction of Europe.

If successful, Von Der Leyen would be the first Commission President not to have served as a Prime Minister of a member state since the 1980s and would arguably be one of the lowest ranking people ever to get this job.

She is widely regarded as being one of the weaker ministers (despite now being Merkel’s longest serving minister) in the current Berlin government – owing her success more to loyalty to Frau Merkel than ability and her appointment (just like that of Spanish Foreign Minister Borrell) to the Commission, opens up an extra slot for any upcoming reshuffles.

But the wheels are coming off the wagon.

Ms Von Der Leyen was in Brussels recently for hearings with the various different political groupings to get their support in Parliament. Both the Greens and the far-left groups have firmly said they will not be supporting her.

For the first time ever, the centre-right and centre-left groups do not have an overall majority by themselves in the European Parliament.

In principle, this deal was cooked up by representatives of these two groups plus the new liberal centrist group “Renew Europe” formed by President Macron and together, in theory, these groups should get her over the line.

However, it should be noted that the European Parliament does not have nearly as tight a whipping system as national parliaments.

The Socialist group is believed to be split along national lines, with even the German SPD having their doubts.

Greek Socialist MEP Eva Kalli is thought to have said that von der Leyen was tougher than former German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble during the Greek economic crisis.

Even in von der Leyen’s own centre-right grouping there are those taken aback that their spitzenkandidat, in the form of the hapless Bavarian, Manfred Weber, is being overlooked.

To be elected, Ms von der Leyen needs an absolute majority- that’s the support of 376 MEPs. Jean Claude Juncker got 440 in his equivalent vote in 2014 and despite his nomination being considerably less controversial or unpredictable than this one, this number still fell somewhat short of what he was expected to get.

One scenario floating around Brussels is that von der Leyen may get less than 400 votes and preside over a handicapped Commission.

While the Commission remains the sole body that can initiate law at EU level, the vast majority of them can be both amended and rejected by Parliament and many in this very divided chamber may revel in the ability to throw a spanner in the works over the next five years.

The debate on Ms von der Leyen’s nomination starts today at 5pm Irish time in the European Parliament. Followed by a vote – by secret ballot.

Should the unthinkable happen and Von Der Leyen fail to be approved this will require someone else to be nominated at yet another summit.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based writer and academic. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Pic: Getty