Thursday

29th Oct 2020

Commission chief under fire for Croatia campaign video

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in the Croatian election campaign ad - which was filmed in her office building (Photo: HDZ/Twitter)

The EU Commission admitted Monday (6 July) "technical mistakes" were made during the production of a Croatian election campaign video in which commission president Ursula von der Leyen appears, throwing her political weight behind the ruling conservative party in that country.

The commission argued on Monday that von der Leyen was intended to be speaking in her personal capacity - which was not made clear in the video.

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Von der Leyen, along with other senior politicians from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) including Croatian commissioner Dubravka Suica, appeared in the video posted by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Von der Leyen's participation seems to be in breach with the commission's guidelines which say that commissioners have to abstain from "making public statements or interventions on behalf of any political party" except from when they withdraw from the commission job to campaign.

The commission, however, said mistakes were made, but no breach has been committed.

"She [von der Leyen] respected in her intentions all her commitments," commission spokesman, Eric Mamer said on Monday.

According to Mamer, a very short video clip was recorded at the request of Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenkovic's office.

"Technical mistakes" were committed by not changing the backdrop - featuring the EU commission headquarters - to the specific video clip, and by adding the president's title to the video in post-production in Zagreb, according to the commission's account of events.

"The president wishes to ensure that the appropriate procedures are in place to avoid such an unintentional error creeping in in the future," Mamer said, without going into details.

The commission also argued that von der Leyen is able to participate in a national campaign in a personal capacity.

"She president is a member of the EPP, in this context she can express political views," Mamer said.

"Clearly the president is of the view that it is a good thing for European democracy that members of the college can engage in active political life," the spokesman said, adding that "appropriate conditions must apply".

The commissioners' code of conduct prohibits top officials from making public statements on behalf of any political organisation , but adds that "this is without prejudice to the right of commissioners to express their personal opinions".

The Good Lobby civil organisation has lodged a complaint with the EU ombudsman, overseeing the conduct of EU institutions and officials, saying von der Leyen is in breach of the commission's own rules.

In a statement the NGO said that referring to von der Leyen's endorsement as "personal opinion" is "moot" as it was recorded and delivered from her office in the commission's HQ, using her institutional title.

The Good Lobby argues that von der Leyen "failed to take any measure that could have allowed to qualify her contribution as 'personal'".

Asked if von der Leyen will also add her voice to the presidential elections in Poland this Sunday, the commission spokesman said the commission chief will decide on a case-by-case basis.

In Poland, under the incumbent president Andrzej Duda, Warsaw had several run ins with EU law, while his challenger, Rafal Trzaskowski is an EPP member - the same political family as von der Leyen.

Last year, commissioners Guenther Oettinger and Vera Jourova featured in campaign videos in the Slovak presidential election campaign on behalf of their fellow commissioner Maros Sefcovic.

At the time, the commission again said it was not in violation of the code of conduct, as it was not campaigning but "colleagues appreciating and supporting each other".

Earlier this year, enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi shared a tweet by the Italian far-right Fratelli d'Italia, which he later deleted, saying he did not any "intention of getting involved in Italian politics nor to support any particular party".

How political?

The commission has for years grappled with the urge to be more political, as national-populism has been on the rise, while maintaining independence from domestic national governments and being the unbiased enforcer of EU rules.

The EU Parliament has tried to push the commission to be a more political institution, while the council of member states mostly want it to be an apolitical secretariat - as much as is possible.

Former EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said earlier that staying silent while Brexit campaigners told "lies" before the UK's 2016 referendum was the biggest mistake he has made as EU chief executive.

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