The flowering of EU democracy? Hardly

The election of Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president is a compromise that may yet herald an institutional power struggle, say Lionel Laurent and Paul Carrel.

The flowering of EU democracy? Hardly

The election of Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president is a compromise that may yet herald an institutional power struggle, say Lionel Laurent and Paul Carrel.

Ursula von der Leyen has clinched the presidency of the European Commission by a razor-thin margin of nine votes.

It’s a win for the national governments that backed her, a loss for the European Parliament that dreamed of putting forward one of its own, and a sign of some very tough tussles ahead for the bloc.

When pulling a rabbit out of a hat, it helps to not show the audience the secret compartment.

The nomination, earlier this month, of Von der Leyen, the former defence minister of Germany, to the helm of the European Union’s executive arm, involved very little magic.

As a compromise pick to settle differences between Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, she was ideal. But for the new European Parliament, which had fielded better-known candidates who actually campaigned for the job, she was a mean trick.

The memory of this vote may fade, but the institutional power struggle it reignites will live on. Deciding who gets to run the European Commission has historically been the preserve of national governments (a fact apparently lost on euroskeptic Brexiters like Nigel Farage, who painted von der Leyen as the symbol of an undemocratic super-state).

But the European Parliament has long wanted more influence, and in 2014 its squabbling factions found enough common ground to field their own candidates — one of whom, Jean-Claude Juncker, won. With von der Leyen, the pendulum has already swung back.

As an indicator of effective policy-making in the EU, Tuesday’s vote was not reassuring.

The European elections, in May, failed to produce a populist wave, but they did usher in a set of far more fragmented political factions, as traditional left and right power blocs lost their majority.

The new politics were on show in the awkward coalition-building that went on ahead of the vote. Von der Leyen’s lightning-quick campaign was packed with goodies that seemed incongruous for a centre-right politician — including a €1tn “green deal”, a carbon tax, a minimum wage, an unemployment-benefit scheme, mechanisms to bolster the rule of law, and a stronger border force.

That wasn’t enough to sway the Greens, and the Socialists endorsed her only at the 11th hour.

It still pays not to underestimate the European Parliament — which approves big agreements like trade deals and Brexit — even if, this time around, it didn’t carry out its threats to send member states back to the drawing board.

The parliament will vote on von der Leyen’s commission, too, when she gets it assembled, so she’ll have to be serious about keeping her promises.

Nevertheless, national interests have won this time around. Macron’s and Merkel’s scheme went to plan — if just barely.

And considering that the parliament couldn’t unify enough to protect its own interests, it will be hard to claim this outcome was undemocratic.

As to Von der Leyen’s track record, the 60-year-old fluent English and French speaker has had a tough time as German defence minister, a post she has held since 2013.

Her tenure has been marked by scandals over the awarding of contracts and right-wing extremism in the Bundeswehr, criticism about gaps in military readiness, and a crash between two German Eurofighter jets last month, in which one pilot was killed.

She is a rarity in German politics, in that she came to the game late, when she was 42, following a career in medicine.

A mother of seven, who was born in Brussels and lived in Britain and the United States, von der Leyen grew up surrounded by politics. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was a state premier for the state of Lower Saxony, from 1976 to 1990.

She studied at the London School of Economics from 1977 to 1980, but used the pseudonym “Rose Ladson” due to concerns she might be targeted, as the daughter of a prominent politician, by left-wing guerrillas active in West Germany at the time.

A trained gynaecologist, she was once hoisted out of a barrel on German entertainment TV by Hugh Jackman, and kissed by George Clooney after handing him an award for promoting peace.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, covering Brussels. Paul Carrel is Reuters’ chief correspondent in Berlin.

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