Has Merkel’s EU Dominance Been Weakened Further?

The nominations for the presidencies of the EU institutions represented a significant setback for French President Emmanuel Macron, but they could be as equally humiliating for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) candidate for the President of the European Commission (EC), Ursula von der Leyen, who has been Merkel’s conservative Defence Minister since 2013, has found herself at the mercy of the European Parliament’s (EP) liberal and socialist groups.

Nominations for all the presidencies close at 6pm on Tuesday, which means von der Leyen has inadequate time to please two of the EP’s largest parties. Nonetheless, Politico reported that she has attempted to offer them “an array of goodies.” These included the right of legislative initiative for the EP, which has lacked this authority for a considerably long time, and her agreement to hold a two-year long ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ that would provide citizens with a forum to express their views.

She has also issued written responses to the left-leaning groups following the demands they issued to the EC nominee last week. The German Defence Minister repeated her desire ‘to improve’ the Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate system, which was essentially defeated when she was nominated for the EU’s top job by the European Council. She wrote: “The Commission leadership team consists of the President and two executive vice-presidents. One of the first two, the First Vice President, will replace the President in her absence.” Though she did not specify that she would hold this position, Politico said that it satisfied the leader of Renew Europe, Romanian MEP Dacian Cioloș.

In a further bid to humiliate Macron, who is opposed to Albania and North Macedonia obtaining EU membership, von der Leyen’s letter to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats reiterated her commitment to ensuring these nations join the institution one day. Her correspondence with this group was broadly similar to letters she exchanged with Renew Europe. She also promised to end a long-standing policy feud over migration and asylum rules.

What von der Leyen’s bid to impress the socialists and the liberals represents is a further dilution of power in the EU for Merkel. This has been caused by alternative parties upsetting the status quo in May’s European elections, which prevented one of the main groups from gaining an overall majority. Instead of offering an assertive conservative agenda, the German Defence Minister has had to appease all of the different groups to guarantee that she can secure the presidency of the EC tomorrow.

The European People’s Party (EPP), which Merkel’s CDU belongs to, has been the most powerful grouping in the EP since 1999 and in the EC since 2002. In 2014, they managed to secure the presidencies of the three main EU institutions: Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk both became Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council respectively. As of 2017, the EPP currently hold the presidency of the European Parliament, with Italian Antonio Tajini retaining this position for now.

But this year, the presidency of the European Council has been awarded to Belgium’s liberal Prime Minister, Charles Michel. A centre-left MEP called David-Maria Sassoli will succeed Tajini in his current role. The EPP will be lucky to secure the EC nomination given how many concessions von der Leyen has offered to ensure she wins it tomorrow. Either way, these nominations represent a deathblow to Merkel’s EU dominance.

Given that the presidency of the European Central Bank was awarded to Christine Lagarde to keep Macron on side, if Merkel’s candidate loses the EC presidency, she will come out of these nominations worse than the French President. The EU is about to witness the end of German-French dominance. Regardless of whether von der Leyen secures the EC presidency, it will be interesting to witness what long-term impact this has on the EU’s future.