Nominee for the EU’s Top Job Is Weak. That’s Her Strength.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ursula von der Leyen, the nominee for the European Union’s top job, faces a tough confirmation vote in the European Parliament on Tuesday. But her chances are bolstered by the risk that a “no” vote could plunge the EU into an institutional crisis.

Two weeks ago, the European Council, which consists of national leaders, picked von der Leyen to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. It was French President Emmanuel Macron who proposed her as a compromise, after the candidacy of Dutchman Frans Timmermans, backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, met with the fierce resistance of some conservative leaders — especially the nationalist prime ministers of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. In his role as the commission’s first vice president, Timmermans, a Social Democrat, was tasked with forcing Poland and Hungary to reverse judiciary reforms that put courts under too much political control — and was remarkably successful given the limited tools at his disposal. Now time had come for revenge, and voila — von der Leyen emerged from out of nowhere as Timmermans’s replacement.

Timmermans’s failure created a serious hurdle for von der Leyen, however.

To get confirmed by the parliament, she needs the votes of three of the four centrist groups there: the center-right European People’s Party, the liberal Renew Europe, the Social Democrats and the Greens. Since the environmentalists rejected von der Leyen after a single meeting, deeming her answers to their questions too weak and vague, the candidate needs to win as many votes as possible from the other three parties, which hold a combined 444 votes in the 751-member legislature. 

The EPP has come to terms with von der Leyen’s candidacy — though she’s not Manfred Weber, who leads the group in the parliament and who campaigned hard for the commission presidency, she is, after all, another German conservative. Weber published a column in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that calls on the next commission president to submit to more parliamentary scrutiny; though it doesn’t mention von der Leyen by name, it reads like a rather mild request of the more successful candidate to cooperate. 

Renew Europe, in which Macron’s party is the main force, sent von der Leyen a list of tame requirements for its “yes” vote (for example, that the group’s Margrethe Vestager get the same powers as Timmermans when she, too, becomes a commission vice president). She will have no trouble committing to them. 

But even if the EPP and Renew Europe give her all their votes, she’ll still be 86 votes short of a majority, and she’ll need to get them from Social Democrats. Many of them, however, resent her having been chosen over Timmermans, who had run a strong campaign and was an inch away from the prize. Besides, German Social Democrats, who are part of Merkel’s ruling coalition, feel that von der Leyen has been weak in her current job as defense minister.

The Social Democrats’ letter to van der Leyen is harsh and filled with ambitious demands. It says bluntly that her candidacy is a result of national leaders’ disrespect for the parliament and the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, under which the commission presidency should go to a party’s “lead candidate” who has campaigned for it and can put together a majority. And it sets out an entire legislative agenda, complete with budgetary commitments to fight climate change and proposals that will prove hard to push through, such as a minimum income tax rate of 18% throughout the EU. “We need to see you make concrete commitments on our key demands or we will not be able to back your candidacy,” the group’s leader, Iratxe Garcia Perez, wrote.

It’s hard to see how von der Leyen, not being a Social Democrat herself, can adopt all four pages of their “key demands.” Her best hope is that it may not be necessary: Many members of the 154-strong group will be wondering about alternatives if they reject her.

If she loses the vote, the European Council will go back to the drawing board, but chances that Timmermans’s candidacy will be revived are slim because of eastern Europeans’ stiff opposition. It’s not clear what the Social Democrats would gain from the likely emergence of another surprise candidate, likely from the EPP, which is the strongest party in parliament. Besides, von der Leyen is a woman, and gender balance in the EU leadership is one of the Social Democrats' most important demands. It’s not worth setting up a confrontation with the national leaders when the parliament has no consensus candidate to offer — and it missed the chance to do so last month because of interparty squabbling.

The vote count is still tight for von der Leyen, but the dynamic of compromise is behind her, and it’s usually the EU’s most powerful driving force. She’s not being picked for her command of policy — she’s barely had time to get into the issues — or for her political skill in hammering out deals with the various parliamentary groups. She’s a strong candidate because all the more obvious candidates, some stronger than her, have been eliminated in round after round of backroom dealing. 

If she squeaks through, that’s not a great hand with which to start a game. But then, the national leaders appear content to run the EU with as little input as possible from the Brussels superstructure, and a weak leader at the commission is probably just what they want.

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

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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