In the end, it was a backroom deal

Barbara Wesel / DW No Comments Share:
Ursula von der Leyen, Minister, Federal Ministry of Defence, Germany. flickr/ EU2017EE Estonian Presidency

It was an unexpected victory for Angela Merkel. It has been 50 years since we last had a German leading the European Commission, and if confirmed, Merkel ally and fellow conservative Ursula von der Leyen would be the first woman in history to take the job. If the German chancellor had been pushing for this outcome, it probably would not have happened. But it was a solution born of necessity, after all other options failed and the heads of EU governments were simply relieved to find a candidate they could agree on. It was French President Emmanuel Macron who jumped in to help Angela Merkel and threw von der Leyen’s name into the race. What failed, however, was the EU parliament itself and its system of nominating lead candidates from every major political bloc for the top job.

Divisions run deeper than ever

If there was one thing completely lacking at this summit, it was the spirit of compromise. And that was mostly the doing of the Visegrad states (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia). They were more vocal than ever and did everything to sink Frans Timmermans’ bid, the lead candidate for the social democrats. The Dutch politician is currently serving as the EU commissioner in charge of the rule of law. However, he has been a bit too committed for the Visegrad states’ liking and has often prosecuted them for their transgressions.

This was unforgivable in the eyes of the nationalists ruling in Warsaw and Budapest, who were also reinforced by the populist government in Rome. This new constellation of power is bound to cause many more headaches in the EU.

Now, you may well grit your teeth in anger that a straight-up democrat like Timmermans could fail due to resistance from Viktor Orban and Poland’s PiS party. But the dayslong discussion in the EU Council is a taste of things to come: there will be more arguments and disagreement. Some eastern and central European countries want a fundamentally different policy. They oppose the model of liberal democracy and are also against EU states growing closer together. And now there are enough troublemakers to persistently undermine and question the decisions of the EU.

Backroom deal

However, it was Emmanuel Macron who was ultimately responsible for the failure of the conservative front-runner Manfred Weber. Early on, the French president hinted at his belief that Weber lacked experience. Macron was attempting to break the 50-year predominance of the conservative bloc in the EU Commission. He even managed to bring Spain and the Scandinavian countries over to his side. Ultimately, Macron’s push also failed, but he was still willing to compromise and accept the German defense minister.

It was the Italians who sank the third lead candidate, Margrethe Vestager from the EU-wide liberal bloc Renew Europe. The Danish-born Vestager is a well-respected EU Commissioner for Competition. She once got on the wrong side of the government in Rome over a banking row. Rome’s opposition showed that haggling over top positions in Brussels also serves to settle individual scores. It also destroyed the last chance to have one of the nominated lead candidates as the head of the commission.

Open your eyes when choosing top candidates

This whole spectacle was a true disaster for the EU parliament. The lawmakers wanted to make choosing the European Commission head more democratic, more understandable to citizens. The EU leader was to be selected from the small pool of lead candidates from major political blocs in the EU parliament. This is still just a crutch, because candidates are divided by their nationality and voters cannot really do much to show what they think about a candidate from a different country. But it would at least be a first step.

Read more: EU election candidates face off in TV debate

The German chancellor attempted to salvage the matter and initially supported the moderate leftist bloc. But after all top candidates failed to garner support, there was only one solution — a candidate nobody saw coming. The problem here is the institutional weakness of the EU parliament, because it’s the EU governments who name the candidates, and then the deputies vote for them. This means that both sides need to be in agreement.

The lesson from this fiasco is to keep your eyes open when picking a top candidate for a political bloc. Manfred Weber was a weak candidate, he had no experience in government. The conservative bloc could have picked a different person. But Weber was still accepted due to faction discipline and long-running alliances.

This is not enough. The parties need to think about which candidates can secure a majority, both in their bloc and among the nations deciding on top jobs. They could not even secure a majority for their own candidate in their own ranks. This makes them complicit in this failure, which has set back the democratization of EU policy for years. DW

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