European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went from zero to hero, with her College of Commissioner’s being approved by the European Parliament with 461 votes in favour, 157 votes against, and 89 abstentions. By comparison, Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission received 423 votes in favour, 209 against and 67 abstentions.
Do numbers matter?
No. The dynamics in the European Parliament change. Yet the Parliament cannot be seen as a whole; as a living organism with tendencies; anger, love, or hate for a candidate. It is about the personalities leading their respective bubbles of influence, and the complex ties between each other, the European political parties, their national governments, and their national party leaders.
Von der Leyen, through no fault of her own, found herself in the eye of several storms. The spitzenfiasco – which created tensions even with her own political family, the European People’s party, was only a problem initially, until some leaders of the EPP and heads of state of the Party came to terms with the de facto dissolution of the most democratic step taken for the EU structures since the turn of the millennium.
A side note: It’s fascinating how much Manfred Weber, the Spitzen candidate first elected by the EPP Party members to lead the charge, only to be thrown under the bus post-election, has since the fiasco grown as a politician in terms of his leadership, oratory, and even likeability (not an easy thing to achieve in the cold corridors of Brussels).
Alongside the Spitzen row which saw von der Leyen edge a majority in Parliament allowing her to continue to the next phase of actually forming the College – came the completely pointless issue of whether the “European Way of Life” portfolio name should be preceded by the word “Protecting”. Working off previously stored anxiety over the inability to push through a candidate of their own, von der Leyen’s political opponents created absolute chaos over the matter.
To be fair – some of the portfolio names of this new European Commission that were presented to the press are somewhat bizarre. Not in terms of their content – but their labels. Just imagining the press conferences of the EU’s representatives for “A stronger Europe in the world”, “An economy that works for People,” and indeed, “Protecting (or indeed Promoting) our European way of life” alongside their counterparts from different countries around the world invokes a puppy head-tilt sort of reaction.
But alas, this was a non-issue. The content of the portfolios is the same no matter what the label in front of the Commissioners reads. And the same goes for the political positions and preferences of the Commissioners. The debate over the label was a fight for headlines, prestige, and millimeters in the tug of war of European Politics. And indeed, von der Leyen strategically conceded some rope, in a contest that had finished before it had even begun.
Picking Commissioners that would make it through the test of the European Parliament was the next obstacle. There, von der Leyen was called upon to make the best choice based on proposals from the member states and her vision for the European Commission. Again, Parliamentarians were eager to make their mark – each one voting for one or several of the possible complex congruence of events explained earlier.
Of Commissioners and commissioners
Were the rejected Commissioners treated fairly? Were they treated equally? Were they indeed the right choice for the job given the other proposed candidates? This no longer matters. And if errors were made, they were made on both sides. The Parliament certainly went too easy on at least two candidates which Kassandra’s view had much more explaining to do. Croatia’s Dubravka Šuica on the one hand should have erred on the side of caution in terms of finances issues – which there might indeed be nothing wrong with, but national press has had a field day with, and even some eagle-eyed colleagues in Brussels who have done some digging. And secondly, Polish Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, who was approved by the European Parliament despite having a damning OLAF investigation recommended that he had to return money to the European Parliament that had been unduly paid to him. It is not that Wojciechowski should not have been approved – after all the OLAF investigation did give a not in saying that “No disciplinary or judicial recommendations have been made concerning Mr Wojciechowski in person,” but that could mean several things -including that they could have an expectation that the “possible abuse of travel and subsistence expenses” would result in a positive outcome if taken to court given the evidence. Not to mention the political chaos this would cause for von der Leyen (always a consideration since she is in fact the ultimate boss of OLAF). But – and it is quite a big BUT – did they treat the not one, but THREE rejected candidates in the same way as everyone else? Conclusions for our readers to make.
Ultimately, the Commission did get the Parliament’s nod of approval and work has already started. Along with the reshuffles came positive surprises, particularly in the face of the Romanian Commissioner, Adina Vălean, who for Romania is figure that shines bright in the heart of Europe. The country is as polarized as ever in its internal politics, and Vălean, though in the fray – has spent her time in Brussels solidifying herself as in international, and not just national player, that always things of the bigger picture when it comes to politics and policies.
Steering the ship
Von der Leyen is ready to hit the ground running. Insiders describe her as a doer that doesn’t trust easily. That will make things incredibly difficult in the short term, having to learn how to manage not only a diverse College of Commissioners, but also the entire Commission administration. Now former President Jean-Claude Juncker was incredibly lucky to have Martin Selmayr who undoubtedly kept the administration in line (in political and practical terms) as much as possible. Von der Leyen will either have to learn to trust, or learn for herself how to steer the ship. Selmayr had been a crew member for many years before stepping into the role of Juncker’s head of cabinet. Von der Leyen does not have the luxury of time, and is not easily yielding on trust, so she will have to find a solution before she is at an impasse, or wearing the captain’s hat on a ship that other people are navigating, sometimes at their own pace and direction.
Some time in the last 20 years, an incoming Commissioner who was coming from a member state with no idea how things actually run inside the Berlaymont, once told Kassandra that, “I will whip my DG into shape and they will all serve at my command. No more will they do things without my approval … or else their heads will roll on the steps of the Berlaymont.” After explaining that the thousands of people in this Commissioner’s Directorate-General were in a building on the other side of town that they would rarely even be visiting – and that the staff is generally not only unfireable, but have so much discretionary power that the Commissioner will just be unable to know where it was exercised, with what rationale and under whose command (if not their own initiative), the Commissioner was in disbelief.
But they all learn, sooner or later. Some lean into it, and some try and take control.
This will be a defining choice for Von der Leyen, that has the potential to not only make or break her Presidency, but the European Union itself.
Rule of law
A final word on the Rule of Law. The situation in the European Union is tragic. One long hard look at every single member state and you will find rule of law issues – smaller or larger. Kassandra does not want to name and shame, but some are definitely worse than others. And in those countries where things are indeed worse, it is not enough to just put the pressure on the governments who are facilitating these realities – because the truth is, that those really ruling the countries in question – call them oligarchs, mafia, or vested interests – have and will continue outlasting governments as they rise and fall. The only way to handle such situations is to make rules, and to enforce them. And to do that, we need the willingness and determination to hand over even more sovereignty to European bodies that can take charge of such initiatives. Two problems with that are that (a) Citizens need to first be convinced that the EU is not part of the system, selectively picking and choosing what interests to go up against. Because dethroning one oligarch for another (even if they are slightly better) is not the same thing as fixing a problem. And (b) EU Heads of state have to believe in von der Leyen (or any future President) enough to be willing to sacrifice current equilibria for the chaos and disruption that will lead to the eventual greater good.