Sunday

19th Jan 2020

Von der Leyen's EU vote far from sure

  • Former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen would become the first-ever woman to lead the European Commission (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Unhappy socialist and liberal MEPs could upset Ursula von der Leyen's bid to be the next European Commission president in a vote this week.

That might "not be the end of Europe," but it would make an even bigger mess in the EU top jobs system.

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If she scrapes through after doing a deal with populists, it could also bode ill for future EU leadership.

The German centre-right candidate needs at least 374 out of 747 votes to get past the finish line at 6PM in Strasbourg on Tuesday (16 July).

The parliament normally has 751 MEPs, but four of them have not taken up their seats yet.

If things go as her team predicts, she might get more than 400 in what would be a strong mandate to take the European helm amid turbulent times.

She would need all the centre-right and liberal MEPs and a substantial majority of socialists to do it.

The Greens, eurosceptic MEPs, and far-left ones have said they will vote against her, but she has the centre-right and liberals on paper and the socialist split appeared to be tilting her way.

The German socialists had led the attack, even circulating a pamphlet in Brussels last week entitled "Why Ursula von der Leyen is an inadequate and unsuitable candidate".

But over the weekend two big names from Germany's centre-left SPD party - former party chief Sigmar Gabriel and former interior minister Otto Schily - publicly urged MEPs to back her.

A Danish socialist MEP, Christel Schaldemose, also told Danish Radio on Sunday "at least" half the socialists would vote for her.

"She is likely to get it because the whole EPP [the centre-right group] and the liberals will back her. Enough socialists will also back her, especially the Spanish delegation, which wants to secure the EU Council deal, so it can get Borrell into a top job," a source from the liberal Renew Europe group told EUobserver.

The EU leaders' deal, agreed earlier this month, envisaged making Spain's socialist foreign minister, Josep Borrell, the next EU foreign relations chief as part of a package including von der Leyen's nomination.

Secret ballot

But Tuesday's secret ballot - a format which favours party rebels - could cause an upset.

For their part, British diplomats estimated von der Leyen would only get 357 votes in an informal calculation doing the rounds in EP corridors.

The British count assumed all Renew Europe MEPs would toe the group line.

But an EP source said up to 20 of Renew Europe's 108 deputies might abstain in protest, especially if von der Leyen declined the group's demand to reform the EU election system.

Her defeat "would not be the end of Europe", Luxembourg's socialist foreign minister Jean Asselborn told German newspaper Die Welt on Sunday.

"If Frau von der Leyen is not elected, one more round will be needed ... the [EU] Council would have one month to come up with another idea [candidate]," he said.

But that scenario would make an even worse mess in the EU institutions, after EU leaders recently broke their own rules on nominations, the so-called 'Spiztenkandidat' system, in favour of old-fashioned horse-trading.

It would be so unwelcome, the vote should be postponed until September unless von der Leyen was sure to win, Schaldemose, the Danish MEP said.

One way to avoid it would be for von der Leyen to make a deal with the Greens.

And the EP source said her office had held talks on giving the Greens a senior portfolio in the next EU commission, even though "nothing could be guaranteed" in terms of an outcome.

PiS deal?

Another way would be for her to court the anti-federalist ECR group, the fifth largest with 62 MEPs.

But "the entire ECR group would vote against her" unless other groups let Poland's ruling PiS party, a major ECR member, install its candidate, former prime minister Beata Szydlo, as the chair of the EU parliament's employment committee, another EP source said.

And the prospect of the new commission chief relying on the support of one of Europe's most populist parties, PiS, which has triggered an EU sanctions procedure against Poland over abuse of rule of law, would not be a pretty one, Luxembourg's Asselborn said.

Von der Leyen "has to express [herself] without doubt in support of the non-negotiability of rule of law ... in other words, against the Europe of Orban, Kaczynski, Le Pen, and Salvini," Asselborn said, naming PiS chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and three other leading EU populists from Hungary, France, and Italy.

EU parliament to vote on von der Leyen next week

MEPs will vote next Tuesday on the new commission president candidate, but her approval is far from certain. Von der Leyen will have to rely on votes from the right wing of the parliament to get the top job.

Analysis

EU top jobs: winners, losers, and institutional battles

The decision on the top jobs shed light on key developments in the EU: the changing of the centre-right guard, the failure of the spitzen-system, Germany's confidence, Macron's political success, and the illiberal problem.

Who are the EU's new leaders?

Three out of the four people to lead the EU institutions in Brussels for the next five years were selected Tuesday, but none are well-known outside their own countries. The fourth, the European Parliament president, is to be chosen Wednesday.

Analysis

What did we learn from the von der Leyen vote?

The vote on von der Leyen showed the fundamental change in EU politics. The rise of the European Parliament, the power of political parties, and the fragmentation of politics, are new realities to be taken into account.

Von der Leyen's final appeal to secure top EU post

European Commission presidential-hopeful Ursula von Der Leyen delivered her key appeal in the European Parliament to secure the post. Her appeal appeared to appease most of the political groups - but a lack of specifics, and opposition from Greens remain.

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