Congratulations to Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s former Defence Minister and the European People’s Party’s (EPP) nominee for President of the European Commission (EC). She is now the first female in the institution’s history to become its leader. She won the support of 383 MEPs, nine votes more than required for an absolute majority, but below the 400 threshold that would have provided her with a stable majority to push her policies through parliament over the next five years.
Yet her nomination was a stitch-up from the beginning. It represented nothing more than a futile attempt by Merkel to ensure that her EPP group wins the presidency of at least one EU institution. May’s European elections have shifted the balance of power away from the main groupings and denied any of them a majority. To ensure that she had a mandate that respected the European Parliament’s (EP) will, she made a final speech to politicians on Tuesday promising them what Politico called ‘a bag of goodies.’ These included ensuring full gender equality in the EC, establishing a pan-EU guarantee of free healthcare and education for every child, an EU-wide minimum wage, a fund to support national welfare states in the case of an economic crisis, and to ensure flexibility in the tax and spend restraints on eurozone countries.
However, throughout the entire process, she was unchallenged. Von der Leyen was nominated by EU leaders after 50 hours of intense negotiations despite not being one of the spitzenkandidats, or lead candidates, who campaigned before May’s election to head the EU’s executive branch. Furthermore, her nomination came as a surprise not only to the socialist and liberal groups who were initially opposed to her candidacy, but to her own EPP group, too.
Brexit Party MEP Michael Heaver successfully mocked the entire election in a live video on Facebook, posted moments before the vote. He highlighted that him and his colleagues will be voting for one candidate, which he later described as ‘a one-horse race.’ But this process represented the EU’s undemocratic nature altogether. Von der Leyen may be proposing to make the EC more representative of different genders, and she may be flirting with the idea of a democratic forum for citizens to express their views, but no radical reforms have been proposed by the former Defence Minister to address what is fundamentally wrong with this institution.
Von der Leyen will be one of the most powerful people in Europe and its citizens have had no say over her appointment. She has no obligation to campaign for her policies and have them approved by people whose lives her institution will be making decisions for. The EC itself is a distant and remote body and its commissioners are elected by nobody. It is admirable that the former Defence Minister wants to provide the EP with more legislative power, but she has failed to specify in what areas. The electorate votes for MEPs to represent them in a body that is dictated to by an undemocratic counterpart. It is doubtful that the EC will want to surrender too much power only to have the EP thwart them at every turn.
The new EC President failed to understand the message that huge swathes of the European electorate sent them. It is democratic, not social rights, they want. Their votes have been ignored. For example, when does von der Leyen intend to discuss the problem of taxpayers’ money being wasted on the EP being moved from Brussels to Luxembourg and then to Strasbourg frequently? Where is the accountability as to how this money has been spent? It is no secret the EU’s books have not been audited since 1999 either.
Von der Leyen’s appointment is nothing more than a wasted opportunity to address the substantial problems plaguing the EU. Until they nominate a serious reform candidate, they will never understand why so many Europeans feel distant from this institution. This is not an organisation interested in democracy. The former Defence Minister’s candidacy was nothing more than an exercise in self-interest, with inadequate input from MEPs. Let us hope more nations can exit the EU soon.