Coalition politics demands time and patience, but in selecting German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to be the next Commission president, EU leaders went for a quick fix — and the bloc may now pay a steep price.
The leaders’ decision came Tuesday evening, just 48 hours after an initial compromise package, put forward by Council President Donald Tusk on behalf of the leaders of Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain, had crashed and burned without ever leaving the runway.
That failed package was at least centered on theSpitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, system and therefore based largely on names that had been under discussion in Brussels and throughout Europe for months, along with their relative pluses and minuses.
By contrast, the hastily-constructed package adopted on Tuesday evening, with Germany notably abstaining on the choice of the first German EU chief since Walter Hallstein left office in 1967, contained several surprises. Negative reaction was quick and brutal.
Put succinctly: theSpitzenkandidatsystem died while the backroom deal, long a trusty approach of the EU, lives on.
“They’re jumping for the quick fix,” an EU diplomat said. “This whole city wants a quick fix, so embrace your pain, make it a part of you and know that the next round will be another disappointment.”
In the unkindest analysis, the leaders chose von der Leyen, a largely unknown quantity in Brussels who has been dogged by misspending and mismanagement allegations in Berlin, not because of the leadership skills she will bring to the EU’s top job as Commission president, but because she filled more banal criteria: compensating Germany and the conservative European People’s Party for being denied their first choice — the conservative lead candidate Manfred Weber.
“Dominance, German dominance,” the EU diplomat lamented.
At the same time, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the self-declared champion of illiberalism and Christian Europe, was among the loudest claiming victory, boasting of having squashed Weber and the socialist nominee, Frans Timmermans, who as first vice president has been the Commission’s enforcer on rule-0f-law and democracy standards. Timmermans would have gotten the top job under the deal rejected on Sunday.
The inherent flaws in the package approved Tuesday were illustrated most clearly not by its critics but by its chief architects: Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Tusk, moving quickly to claim ownership rights over the outcome, first and foremost trumpeted the speediness of the decision.
“Five years ago we needed three months to decide, and still some leaders were against,” Tusk crowed. “This year it was three days and nobody was against — even if Germany abstained on the Commission president.”
Tusk tried to focus on the selection of two women and two men — including von der Leyen as the first-ever woman tapped for Commission president. “A perfect gender balance. I am really happy about it,” Tusk said. “After all, Europe is a woman.”
It was Tusk who had set the seemingly impossible goal of reaching an accord on the top jobs before the new Parliament could elect its president — a move that could have constrained the Council’s decision-making given the requirements in the EU treaty to seek balance in filling top posts, taking account of party affiliation, big vs. small countries, and east-west, north-south geography.
As for balance, Tusk was immediately confronted over the fact that the top four jobs went to Western Europeans. And as for avoiding the whims of Parliament, Tusk, at his news conference, was forced to concede that the Council’s deal hinges on the election of an Eastern European social democrat as Parliament president — a choice that remains outside of the Council’s control.
(Though Tusk didn’t name him, officials made clear they envisioned former Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, the longtime head of the Party of European Socialists, getting the top job in Parliament.)
“We know that this is for the Parliament to decide on the names,” Tusk said in response to a question about Stanishev. “Our intention is to have a president of the Parliament from the social democrats for the first term, and a candidate from the EPP for the second term, but this is our political opinion and political intention but … this is only for the Parliament to decide.”
In Parliament, however, some MEPs quickly expressed resistance and diplomats warned that the Council’s entire package could be seriously in danger as soon as Wednesday. “The big risk is that half of the socialists vote against it to torpedo the whole deal,” an EU diplomat said, pointing at the disappointment of the socialists who, despite scoring second in May’s European election, didn’t get the presidency of the Council, considered to be the EU’s second most important job after the Commission.
Then there was Merkel, still the EU’s most influential national leader, who ended up abstaining from the vote on von der Leyen. Merkel was constrained by the German Social Democratic Party, her governing coalition partner in Berlin, which was furious at the outcome.
Tusk stressed that Merkel herself was in favor of the package, but speaking to reporters afterward, the chancellor sounded anything but happy. She said she was open to changing the EU voting system “to avoid such an unfortunate situation” and she griped about the treatment of her party’s lead candidate, Weber, whose candidacy had been rejected by other leaders virtually from the start.
If Merkel wasn’t completely satisfied, others were livid at what they lambasted as a hastily stitched-up backroom deal that lacked democratic legitimacy and that didn’t take into account some notable shortcomings of several of the nominees.
Von der Leyen, for instance, is the subject of an ongoing investigation into misspending and mismanagement at the German defense ministry tied to the hiring of outside consultants. Meanwhile, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell is the pick for EU high representative for foreign affairs but comes from a country that does not recognize Kosovo because of Madrid’s opposition to separatist movements, including in Catalonia.
Borrell, as high representative, would be the top official in charge of EU diplomacy in the Balkans, including an EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo.
Meanwhile, Christine Lagarde, the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund tapped to be the next president of the European Central Bank, has faced her own misconduct allegations at home, including a conviction for negligence.
One European government official said that French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel jointly demanded that Tusk push to finish the deal after he told them, in a meeting at around 7 a.m. on Monday, that no solution was on the horizon and a new leaders’ summit should be called for mid-July.
Merkron, as the Franco-German duo are sometimes known, were having none of it — especially after the leaders had all just pulled an all-nighter.
“At one point after the plenary, Macron was seen in the Council room sitting at his seat surrounded by a group of leaders, including Merkel, while Tusk sat alone a few seats away, apart from the action,” the government official said.
A second EU government official said: “It’s not Tusk who handled all this. Tusk is overwhelmed. It’s Macron and Merkel, each doing their job on their side. There’s a problem of process. It’s not possible to arrive to a European Council with so much at stake and so little clarity.”
Others said that defenders of Merkel and Macron were simply trying to deflect the culpability of their own bosses — Merkel for stubbornly supporting Weber’s doomed candidacy long past its viability and Macron for mercurial double-talk that had even some of his political allies stunned by his pronouncements, such as when he declared all lead candidates eliminated from the race.
By that view, Merkel was critically weakened when the EPP rebelled against her fallback plan on Sunday. And Macron has come up far short of his goals, having endorsed a deal that leaves the conservatives in charge, and gives Germany even more power than before. France’s big prize — the Lagarde pick for the ECB — could ultimately fall apart, some EU diplomats said.
The full consequences of the Council’s proposal may not be known for weeks or months, perhaps not until after von der Leyen’s nomination is ratified by the Parliament — if it is ratified.
But some champions of the EU project immediately donned the black garb of mourning.
“The result of the European elections were patently clear,” said one former EU official who worked for a candidate shortlisted for a top job. “We don’t want more of the same. We want the right people in the right roles, based on merit, and not obscure, self-serving, backroom political shenanigans.”
“This is Europe, not the Trump Casino in Atlantic City,” the former official continued. “The leadership roles of the four EU institutions and the European Central Bank actually have job descriptions. The qualifications required should be obvious, especially to the 23 lads and 5 women around the Council table. Is this how you would appoint the CEO of a business? Is this how you would select the captain of a team, the editor of a paper, the head of a NGO or head girl or head boy at school? Is this reallyprimus inter pares?”
When the barbs come in Latin (for “first among equals”), you know tempers are boiling over.
“Did anyone consult what is actually required to run the European Commission, an executive, an administration of 33,000 civil servants,” the ex-official asked. “Did anyone pick up ‘Foreign Affairs for Dummies’ and understand that Spain doesn’t recognize Kosovo?”
Maïa De La Baume, Zia Weise, Lili Bayer and Zosia Wanat contributed reporting.