Ursula von der Leyen: A nomination that weakens Europe

, by Radu Dumitrescu

Ursula von der Leyen: A nomination that weakens Europe
Ursula von der Leyen at the Munich Security Conference in 2017. Photo: Kuhlmann /MSC - Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 DE)

A few days ago, European heads of state huddled together in the European Council, following the elections of last month, and nominated several people for the top jobs in the Union. Among them, Charles Michel, the acting Belgian premier who has been striving to bring together a governing coalition in his country; Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, and Josep Borrell Fontelles, currently foreign minister in Spain.

The nomination that rocked the most chairs in European capitals, however, was that of EPP’s Ursula von der Leyen, currently Minister of Defence in Germany. Now, she is set to become the new president of the European Commission, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker. But she’s just not right for the job.

The Leyen compromise

In the aftermath of the nomination, everyone seemed displeased – and that is usually a sign of a good compromise. The S&D group, whose Frans Timmermans was said to take the helm of the Commission, had its candidate blocked by the Visegrad four, who deeply dislike Timmermans for his stance on rule of law. The Eastern European members, on the other hand, seem to have spent all of their influence on blocking candidates, rather than backing some. Meanwhile, Manfred Weber withdrew his name after being opposed by French President Macron. And on it goes, the backdoor politics of it all being lost in numerous recounts of every meeting and discussion, each covered in the press.

So who is Ursula von der Leyen? Brussels-born, she spent the first 13 years of her life in the heart of the EU. Leyen is part of the Christian Democratic Union (CSU) party in Germany, and a longtime ally of Merkel. Leyen also speaks English and French fluently, thus covering all three of the major European languages.

If successful, von der Leyen will be the first female president of the Commission, but this would not be the first glass ceiling she shattered. In Germany, von der Leyen was the longest-serving member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet and the first female German defence minister – and she rose to the task, increasing the number of German troops beyond the cap of 185,000 for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

At the same times, several scandals affected her time at the Ministry of Defence in Germany. In one case, a deputy minister employed by von der Leyen hired numerous expensive advisers, prompting an (ongoing) investigation in the Bundestag.

Von der Leyen – a federalist?

Concerning her own ideas, von der Leyen views the creation of a European army and a continued existence of NATO as complementary, also calling for an end to the EU’s unanimity rule in matters of foreign policy. In 2011, she told Der Spiegel that her “aim is the United States of Europe – modelled on federal states like Switzerland, Germany and the U.S.”, repeating the same ideal in 2016 for Die Zeit. In 2014, von der Leyen argued against supplying Ukraine with weapons, nevertheless advocating for a tough stance on Moscow.

The European Council’s nominee views Brexit as a tragedy, but has not called for a second referendum. She criticised Hungary for using tear gas against migrants in 2015, and applauded the “democratic resistance of the young generation” in Poland in 2017. In 2014, von der Leyen hosted a young Syrian refugee in her home, standing by the migration policies of Merkel.

Von der Leyen has seven children, and implemented parental leave for fathers. She backed the implementation of quotas for women on company boards and in the armed forces and campaigned for equal marriage for LGBT couples. Her views on other important topics are either vague or missing altogether, as she was a minor figure on the European stage so far, known to few others outside of Germany – and a totally new face to the European voters.

The Ratkandidat system

Now, to many she sounds as a satisfactory candidate – not ideal, but good enough. Progressive, despite being part of a conservative party and pro-European – but not explicitly federalist in her policies just yet. Promising in many respects and questionable in just a few.

However, irrespective of her person or history, von der Leyen should not be the next president of the European Commission. Why? Because it is not for the heads of state to negotiate, compromise, logroll with the top positions in the Union – for how can von der Leyen ever stand up to those who appointed her? How can she rise above the political fracas that can often be observed even between France and Germany in order to govern for the whole of the Union?

Last and most importantly, how can she come before the European people, without having campaigned, without having received votes, without having presented herself beforehand?

The EPP, the S&D group and Renew Europe won the last European elections. They are supranational political families, groups reunited not by nationality but by political ideas. And yet, their hands are tied by national leaders, who impose their own ideas on them by fiat, through the Council.

In front of the European Parliament, European Council president Donald Tusk defended the nominations made by his institution, most of all that of von der Leyen. “For the first time, we achieved perfect gender balance in the top positions. Europe is not only talking about women, it is choosing women,” argued Tusk.

According to this line of thinking, the MEPs, directly elected by Europeans should forego the Spitzenkandidat system and go with the European Council’s pick – simply because she is a woman. Obviously, this is a non-argument, progressive dust blown into progressive eyes, similar to the way in which her being a mother of 7 is meant to appeal to conservative ears.

In German, the word “council” can best be translated through the word “der Rat”, also meaning “advice, counsel, piece of advice and senior official”. If we are to let go of the Spitzenkandidat system for this Ratkandidat model, in which the Council “strongly advises” the Parliament to confirm its nominees, we are only empowering the critics of the European Union who point to its democratic deficit, while also empowering the member states.

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