Three questions for Ursula von der Leyen
After a fractious and often uncontrolled selection process, Frau Ursula von de Leyen, got the support from the European Council to be nominated for the post of Chairperson of the European Commission. Soon, the European Parliament is to vote on her nomination. She will need a majority of the votes, including the votes of other parties than of her own. But first, the new members of the EP get the chance to question her. Though just an observer, I take the opportunity to formulate three questions, also in the light of the fact that she represents the European Peoples’ Party (EPP, EVP Dutch) of which I feel a part. Though so far, I like what I saw of her, her coming is not the result of a development I welcome, so the questions have some bite. I will illustrate where that bites come from in my words after each question.
Dear Mrs Von der Leyen, what will you do to ensure that the democratic legitimacy of the European institutes is not only guaranteed, but improved?
You represent the EPP-family, a large family of center-right parties. Instead of being a family of truly conservative, feet dragging old parties, we have in fact been at the forefront of turning the EU into a modern democratic institute. Part of this effort – 25 years in the making! – is the idea of the Spitzenkandidat. The idea proved itself in the election of 2014, with allmajor party families providing candidates, including ALDE.
In the same way, much time and effort went into the selection of Mr. Weber as our next Spitzenkandidat. When selected, he was head of the EPP-delegation and had proven himself in that role. Also because of the welcome efforts of another great candidate, Mr. Stubbs, there was a real selection process, ensuring a party wide commitment to the candidacy of Mr. Weber. A host of delegates casted their votes in Helsinki, and Mr. Weber was selected with a clear majority.
Maybe he was not the person the heads of government considered to be ‘one of their own’, but that is beside the point; they have not come up with a democratic alternative, but only with an alternative person. It could very well be that within the EPP we have not been frank enough in assessing what kind of background a Spitzenkandidat should have, and this is perhaps not fair to you, but let me be frank now: your background is strong, but not that much stronger, and you have not gone through the rigorous selection process Mr. Weber has gone through. It is for this reason, and not any personal failings or shortcomings, that your selection cannot be regarded as anything other than a breakdown of the Spitzenkandidat idea. There are no other efforts to strengthen direct democracy in Europe in sight. Is this how you are going to leave it, or do you have plans to change this? We consider strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the European institutes the sine qua nonof your presidency.
In a wider sense, as president of the Commission you will represent all political parties and their countries in the European Parliament and not just your own party or Germany. It must be said, though, thatthe Union is not always united. The European Union has for instance both a North-South and an East-West divide. How are you going to deal with this?
In your answer, I hope you will evade the clichés. You are no doubt tempted to say that you see it as your duty to connect all the different parts of the union. Either that, or you will say that this diversity is precisely the reason why the European Union is both necessary and strong. The problem is that it has been Mw. Weber’s endeavor to please everyone that has been at the heart of his problems. He was perhaps a bit too nice, too much a bridge builder. And he came with this message at the wrong moment, because both divisions seem to mutate into one BIG division – that between autocracy and democracy, populism and mainstream. Mr. Weber failed because he was still building bridges towards Orbán when that man was tearing down the towers of the law of his country, failing the original Christian-democratic members of his political family and not forceful enough to connect with the strongmen he had to deal with. It is not a very fair criticism: he was asked to do the impossible, could not be stronger than the party behind him. The very different Mr. Timmermans suffered a similar fate because as commissioner he did draw some lines. Across which bridges will you try to draw the line, Madam Van der Leyen?
As president of the Commission you will have to deal with the European Council on a daily basis. They have selected you, so they must give you their trust. How will you use that trust?
The leaders of the Council do not have the same political colors as the European Parliament, which is probably also one of the causes of your troubling nomination process. But differences in political color may be less important than the simple fact that the council is politically less stable than the Commission. Voters are more volatile; parties go up and down, split up and rebrand themselves as they go along. Each year it may get harder for national politicians to find the time and resources to spend the necessary time on European matters, unless Brussels becomes an escape from the troubles at home. It could be that by default, more and more matters will be brought to Brussels without a proper mandate, either at the national or the European level. The challenge of climate change offers an example of this. Behind the consensus on the Paris agreement hide glaring disagreements about the way, the speed and acceptance of more measures towards a greener Europe. It seems logical that many of these disagreements will land sooner or later on the plate of you and the Commission, with the members of the council both needing and envying you that role. It is an almost impossible task, but that is why you were selected, madam Von der Leyen. Apologies for putting it like this, but where will you start?
Affiliated to the Dutch CDA-party and the European Peoples Party. Opinions are his own.