Do Scandals Threaten Ursula von der Leyen’s Presidency?

Brussels is about to head into turmoil as the EU’s presidential nominees are likely to be questioned in the coming weeks by parliamentary committees and investigators. This is all a part of ongoing inquiries that have every chance of derailing the beginning of Ursula von der Leyen’s presidency of the European Commission (EC). She is due to begin her role on November 1st when Jean-Claude Juncker retires.

One of her new commissioners, former French defence minister and ex-MEP Sylvie Goulard, submitted to questioning about allegations that she and other French MEPs employed assistants with EU funds when they were already working for their national parties at home. After resigning as defence minister in June 2017, she was forced to reimburse the European Parliament €45,000.

However, Goulard is not the only one facing legal action. Rovana Plumb, the intended transport commissioner, is an experienced Romanian government minister who was named in a corruption case in 2017. She was accused of assisting the leader of the Social Democratic Party in an illicit real estate deal involving ownership of an island in the Danube River.

Janusz Wojciechowski, von der Leyen’s choice for agriculture commissioner, is being investigated by the EU’s anti-fraud agency called OLAF for alleged irregularities in travel expense reimbursements during his tenure as an MEP from 2004 to 2014.

Also, the EC President-elect faces some questions of her own. The Bundestag accuses her of misspending and mismanagement during her time as Germany’s defence minister. A parliamentary committee is examining how lucrative defence ministry contracts were awarded to high-priced outside consultants without proper oversight. It is possible a network of informal personal connections involving some ministry officials facilitated those deals. Berlin is likely to summon her for questioning in December.

Ursula von der Leyen will become the EC’s President at a time when the EU’s unity is under threat. The EC is responsible for managing the day-to-day business of the EU and from the moment von der Leyen begins her new job, she will face some substantial challenges. She will begin her role the day after Britain is due to leave the EU, and this will have a significant impact on the organisation’s future. In 2018, the UK’s net contribution to Brussels was calculated at £9 billion, and it is difficult to estimate what effect this could have on the EU’s budget, especially if Britain leaves without a deal.

There is also the prospect of a recession looming. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) President, Mario Draghi, has been criticised by a German tabloid newspaper recently for his decision to cut interest rates into negative territory and restart its €2.6 trillion quantitative easing programme of bond-buying, which could fuel a housing bubble. With Italy owing €2 trillion including rumours circulating they could crash out the euro at any time, and Germany on the verge of a recession, the new EU leadership team may face an economic crisis. Trump’s tariffs, which are affecting the German car industry in particular, have recently forced them to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to push both sides towards a trade deal fast.

The recent scandals affecting von der Leyen’s EC appointments have shattered her legitimacy in some MEPs’ minds. In an interview with POLITICO, Dacian Cioloș, a former Romanian prime minister and EU agriculture commissioner who is now leader of the liberal-centrist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, said that he would vote against Plumb’s nomination and would urge members of his group to do the same.

François-Xavier Bellamy, a prominent French MEP from the conservative Les Républicains party, said the charges against Goulard raised questions about her fitness for office. POLITICO predicts these confirmation hearings could turn into a brawl.

Juncker called his team the ‘last chance’ commission. But this title may be more fitting for his successor if von der Leyen’s appointees are not approved. A scandal could not come at a worse time for a new EC President when the EU’s existence is being jeopardised. The fate of von der Leyen’s team rests in Strasbourg’s hands next week, and their decision will determine the EC President-elect’s future.