Merkel and Macron Carried Off Their Trick, Barely

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ursula von der Leyen has clinched the presidency of the European Commission with a razor-thin margin of nine votes. It's a win for the national governments that backed her, a loss for the European Parliament that dreamed of putting forward one of its own — and a sign of some very tough tussles ahead for the 28-member bloc.

When pulling a rabbit out of a hat, it helps to not show the audience the secret compartment underneath. The nomination earlier this month of von der Leyen, the former defense minister of Germany, to the helm of the European Union's executive arm, involved very little magic. As a compromise pick intended to settle differences between Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron, she was ideal. But for the new European Parliament, which had fielded better-known candidates who actually campaigned for the job, she was a mean trick.

The memory of this vote may fade, but the institutional power struggle it reignites will live on. Deciding who gets to run the European Commission has historically been the preserve of national governments (a fact apparently lost on euroskeptic Brexiters like Nigel Farage, who painted von der Leyen as the symbol of an undemocratic superstate). But the European Parliament has long wanted more influence, and in 2014 its squabbling factions found enough common ground to field their own candidates — one of whom, Jean-Claude Juncker, won. With von der Leyen, the pendulum has already swung back.

As an indicator of effective policy making in the EU, Tuesday’s vote was not reassuring. The European elections in May failed to produce a populist wave, but they did usher in a set of far more fragmented political factions, as traditional left and right power blocs lost their majority. The new politics were on show in the awkward coalition building that went on ahead of the vote. Von der Leyen’s lightning-quick campaign was packed with goodies that seemed incongruous for a center-right politician — including a $1.1 trillion “green deal,” a carbon tax, a minimum wage, an unemployment-benefit scheme, mechanisms to bolster the rule of law, and a stronger border force. That wasn’t enough to sway the Greens, and the Socialists endorsed her only at the 11th hour.

It still pays not to underestimate the European Parliament — which approves big agreements like trade deals and Brexit — even if this time around it didn’t carry out its threats to send member states back to the drawing board. The Parliament will vote on von der Leyen’s Commission, too, when she gets it assembled, so she’ll have to be serious about keeping her promises.

Nevertheless, national interests have won this time around. Macron and Merkel’s scheme went to plan — if just barely. And considering that the Parliament couldn’t unify enough to protect its own interests, it will be hard to claim this outcome was undemocratic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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