How Macron Got the German He Wanted to Run the European Union
Emmanuel Macron, French presidential candidate, waves as he arrives at his house after voting during the second round of the French presidential election in Le Touquet, France, (Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg)

How Macron Got the German He Wanted to Run the European Union

(Bloomberg) -- Few people believed Emmanuel Macron when he insisted he wanted someone with the right qualities to lead the European Commission and not the right passport.

But the result of this week’s marathon horse-trading session suggests there was an element of truth in the French president’s assertion -- and showed he has more subtle ways to advance his interests than simply jamming his countrymen into key jobs.

Ursula von der Leyen’s passport may have been issued by Berlin, but her approach to the European Union could have been made in Paris.

Macron proposed Germany’s 60-year-old defense minister to Chancellor Angela Merkel several weeks before EU leaders sat down to decide on the new commission chief, according to one senior French official.

Merkel’s domestic situation wouldn’t allow her to back von der Leyen, even though she rated her personally -- in the past they’d discussed her as a potential NATO secretary general or president of the EU leaders’ council.

So when Germany’s official push to install Dutch Socialist Frans Timmermans faltered Monday, Macron revived the idea.

Tough, Visionary Reformist

Merkel had the cover she needed to give her tacit approval, though in a curious twist, the German leader abstained from the vote to nominate the first German commission chief in half a century, as her coalition partners refused to endorse the candidate.

Assuming she gets past a confirmation vote in the EU Parliament this month, the former doctor will become the poster child for Macron’s idea of an integrated European Union with national interests held in check.

She’s Brussels born -- a second-generation eurocrat -- speaks perfect French and has a long track history of pushing for deeper EU integration.

How Macron Got the German He Wanted to Run the European Union

She may be less familiar to voters outside of Germany, but Macron has known her for years. Acquaintances of both say the French leader sees in her, well, a bit of himself: a tough, visionary reformist.

‘The Union’s DNA’

“I’ve seen her capacity to get things done, and to avoid being captive to particular interests,” Macron said of von der Leyen. “She has a profound European culture, she’s born in Brussels and is the daughter of a Brussels functionary so I can say she has the union’s DNA in her.”

Her immediate priorities may include promoting cutting edge digital technology and opening Europe’s economy to artificial intelligence, both issues close to Macron’s heart. But the archives suggest a deeper shared vision.

At the height of the euro crisis in 2011, many Germans were ready to expel Greece from the euro zone. Von der Leyen instead called for a “United States of Europe” to complete, rather than reverse, the process started by monetary union.

The idea of a federal superstate is taboo in these days of Brexit and populism. But the frustrations of a system where 28 states have a de facto veto were as apparent as ever in the struggle to choose a commission president just as in numerous decisions each year.

So the idea of full political integration is still out there, lurking unspoken in the background of Macron’s plans for a European tax system and a European army.

How Macron Got the German He Wanted to Run the European Union

The question is whether von der Leyen has the political chops to advance that project when Italy is trying to roll back the bloc’s financial rules and populists in the East are flouting their obligations to protect the independence of the courts.

Earlier in her career at the Family and Labor ministries, she steamrolled conservatives to boost day care and paternity leave, and backed pension increases and gender quotas.

Troop Increase, Readiness

At the Defense Ministry, she’s boosted the number of troops for the first time since the Cold War but faced questions about Germany’s military readiness, procurement projects that have run aground, and the prevalence of outside consultants. Her plans to make the military a good employer by introducing kindergartens and part-time jobs for officers were mocked.

“Von der Leyen has no clue about the military,” Inspector-General Harald Kujat said in 2014 when she proposed making barracks more hospitable. “Soldiers need decent equipment first of all,” he told Focus magazine.

Von der Leyen clung to her job, but her star began to fade. When Merkel abandoned the leadership of the Christian Democratic party late last year, she stayed out of the race.

Her political rebirth began sometime Monday after Macron wiped Timmermans’s name from the whiteboard he was using in talks for the last time.

‘Von der Leyen’ may have been the name he wanted to ink in from the start.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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