Joachim Fritz-Vannahme
26. November 2019

Bonne chance, President #von_der_Leyen!

What an excrutiating hurdle race it was to the chair of the EU Commission President. First a proposal from Paris and Berlin was rejected, then a prominent conservative was stopped in the European Council of Heads of Government. In the hearings of the Commissioners nominated by their governments, two failed at once, whereupon the vote on the future EU Commission had to be postponed until well into November.


Of tribulation, hot and cold baths and other incidents


It is the year 2004 and we are not writing down here the tribulations of the new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen but the emotional roller coaster that the then 48-year-old Portuguese José Manuel Barroso had to ride.

Flashback no. 2: Luxembourg’s long-standing Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker ran for the 2014 European elections as the “Spitzenkandidat”, the top candidate. Word and idea came from Berlin; it remained so foreign in many places in the EU that other languages didn’t even bother to translate it and immediately adopted the German term. The punchline: Juncker was the top candidate without running for the European Parliament – which distinguished him from CSU man Manfred Weber in 2019.

Above all, then British Prime Minister David Cameron and Hungary’s powerful man Victor Orban disliked the idea and the man himself, even though Orban, like Juncker, belonged to the European People’s Party family. But that’s the way it is with family quarrels…


How did Juncker get on the executive chair in Brussels again?


Only after weeks of dispute in the European Council was Juncker nominated there against British resistance, and then in July 2014 elected with 422 to 250 votes from the EP. Von der Leyen: 383 votes in favour, only nine votes above the required majority. Well…

This happened, as in Juncker’s case, in July. And as Barroso, von der Leyen had to wait until the end of November before her team can receive their EP approval this week.

Rejections, objections, old animosities or new revenge fouls, in addition all kinds of harping on about principles – there was so much to see in this mini drama. After all, blood did not flow, only sweat.


Nobody wants to miss out when it comes to finding personnel


So what has been going on for a decade and a half between governments, the European Parliament and the Commission, with a loud backup support by the media?

Answer: A completely normal parliamentary process. When it comes to finding the right staff, all those involved ensure that they do not miss out. And even more so when it comes to policy orientation.

Let us take a closer look: “For Europe, this is a moment of truth. Europe has to answer a decisive question. Do we want to lead, shaping globalisation on the basis of our values and our interests – or will we leave the initiative to others and accept an outcome shaped by them?”

And on: “I will redouble my efforts to achieve an ambitious Europe that puts people at the heart of its policies and promotes European values and interests worldwide.”

“I believe we cannot be satisfied with how our common foreign policy is working at the moment. We need better mechanisms in place to anticipate events early and to swiftly identify common responses.“


Small guessing game in the flashback: Who said what?


Quotes no. 1 and no. 2 are from Barroso’s speech of September 2009, the third quote is Juncker’s words at the inauguration.

“Demographic change, globalisation of the world economy, rapid digitalisation of our working environment and, of course, climate change. None of these meta-developments is new: science predicted them a long way back. What is new is that we, as citizens of Europe — irrespective of the country in which we live — are feeling and experiencing their effects first hand.

Whether it is Finnish wheat farmers facing drought or the French facing a deadly heatwave: we are all feeling quite clearly the effects of climate change. Whether it is Irish pensioners that have to get to grips with online banking or Polish workers with 20 years’ experience having to undergo further training in order to avoid being laid off: we are all feeling the concrete effects of digitalisation.”


The personal tone saved von der Leyen from running for office


Which brings us to Ursula von der Leyen and her words spoken on July 15 in front of the EP. This personal tone probably saved her election to the President of the Commission.

Von der Leyen promised a “green deal for Europe”; an action plan for “our pillar of social rights”, the uncompromising “respect for the rule of law”, a new “migration and asylum pact”; the courage to take “foreign policy decisions by qualified majority”.

And for the citizens “a conference on the future of Europe”, and for the MEPs an improved top candidate system (which would not have made her president president) along with her support for “the right of initiative for the European Parliament”.

A good speech, but not so different from the inaugural speeches of her two predecessors. The “green deal” for the green faction, the social rights for the socialist faction, the new migration pact for the conservatives and a “geopolitical Europe” for all.


With such offers politics is made and not poetry is written


This is where politics is made, not poetry is written. For these goals von der Leyen needs majorities – on which she, see her election, should not count too firmly. For her objectives, she needs the Parliament and the Council, not to speak of the very self-confident, sometimes self-assured Commission. For the time being, it is there that the proposals are drafted in the legislative process.

The Parliament is fragmented; for the first time, the EPP and S&D, i.e. the centre-right and centre-left parties, do not have a stabilising majority. Advantage of the disadvantage: The decisive votes must be solicited; fewer decisions are taken in small groups as it happened in the past.

The European Council of Heads of Government is even more fragmented. Orban versus Macron, Poland versus Germany, euro countries versus non-euro countries, weakened by the disappearance of the British, with whom a contributor leaves whom von der Leyen could have used well in the medium-term budget planning 2021-2027. These are just a few examples of fragmentation.


Who can find a compromise in such fragmentation?



The European project has been based on compromise since the Treaty of Rome. And not on energetic executive decisions. This has long bothered the reviled experts and increasingly also the impatient citizens. Whoever comes late will be punished by history. Everyone in Brussels, Strasbourg and in the EU capitals knows this.

The Gospel of Luke of the mitigating circumstances does not apply there: “For they do not know what they are doing”. Rather the disillusioning variant: “For they know too well what they are not doing” – for fear of a sovereign Europe that, in “stormy times”, can only find self-assertion through solidarity.

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