Ursula von der Leyen’s appointment to the powerful post of Commission President has been approved by the European Parliament. The key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel will take over from the marmite Jean Claude-Juncker on November 1st, as the first woman in the role. It was a narrow victory, she needed 374 votes for a majority and on Tuesday evening just got over the line with 383. Five years ago Juncker was elected with 422 votes.
Her votes mostly came from her party, the centre-right EPP, and the liberal grouping recently renamed Renew (in which Macron’s MEPs and the Lib Dems are a part). She got some support from the self-described socialist S&D grouping, but not all its MEPs are onside. She’s a President with a pretty centrist mandate.
But von der Leyen was no one’s guess as a likely contender just a short while ago. The once assumed victor, Manfred Weber, lost out after the break down of the spitzenkandidat system – where each grouping in Parliament nominates their preferred candidate for Commission President. The other two serious contenders, and candidates for the liberals and socialists respectively, Vestager and Timmermans, will serve as von der Leyan’s sort-of deputies at the Commission.
The spitzenkandidat system collapsed after the Council, the nation-state heads of government, rejected the EPP’s Weber. After his rejection and then the rejection of Vestager and Timmermans, the Council and parliamentary groupings began horse-trading for the top jobs, until finally settling on the ultimate compromise candidate (proposed by Macron) in the form of von der Leyen, who until last week was Germany’s defence minister.
Her election is controversial, in part due to her chequered history in charge of Germany’s armed forces, where her record was frequently criticised. Yesterday, in the European Parliament there were serious accusations of cronyism. And to put her reputation in context, she’s been referred to as Germany’s Chris Grayling, the infamous and disaster-prone British minister.
But her election does mean the EU has avoided a crisis, or at least a significant bureaucratic headache.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
At its core, however, this episode has demonstrated a reassertion of the Council’s power over the European Parliament. The Parliament’s spitzenkandidat system completely collapsed. And while it could have rejected von der Leyen’s presidency today, Parliament was relegated to second place in the selection process.
In her speech to the European Parliament earlier today, von der Leyen tried to allay the fears of MEPs. She pledged to increase its authority if elected as president. This is not entirely within the Commission President’s remit, but it was part of a last-ditch attempt to get the numbers she needed to secure her election. Parliament’s authority – at least until the next election cycle – is diminished.
What does this mean for the shape of the EU in general? When it comes to Brexit – probably not a whole lot. It has always been the Council – with Macron and Merkel unofficially at the helm – driving the process, and the Parliament has hardly got a meaningful look in.
As for the wider implications, Eurosceptics will say the process vindicates their scepticism: EU leaders are dictating the direction of the bloc far more than the democratic parliament full of MEPs elected by their constituents. The bloc looks anti-democratic, they can (and will) say.
The EU’s defenders will say that the Council’s reassertion of its primacy shows the process of federalisation has stalled, and the complex structures that eurosceptics loathe so much in the first place are subordinate to the will of elected national leaders. The leaders are taking control and moving to a simpler machinery in which the individual states wield significant power.
In the end, the EU has avoided a major crisis, for now. The Brexit party and the other eurosceptics in Parliament have some more ammunition. And the EU gets a centre-right, Merkel-light Commission President for the next five years.