Tuesday

20th Oct 2020

Analysis

What did we learn from the von der Leyen vote?

  • After a frantic day of scrambling for votes, Germany's Ursula von der Leyen became the next EU Commission president - but only by a wafer-thin nine votes (Photo: Koert Debeuf)

Counting the votes. That is what everybody did the entire day before the real vote started in the European Parliament on the candidacy of Ursula von der Leyen to become president of the European Commission.

It was the first time in decades that the vote on the commission presidency was that unsure.

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All previous commission presidents since the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993, Jacques Santer, Romano Prodi, Jose Manuel Barroso and Jean-Claude Juncker, were backed by a solid majority.

The uncertainty of the von der Leyen vote signals some profound political shifts within functioning of the European Union.

It is a transformation that has started in the 1990s, and that is poised to continue in the years to come. It is the result of the fragmentation of political parties in the EU, as well as the rise in the power of the European Parliament.

The rise of the European Parliament

It was the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993, under the presidency of Jacques Delors that gave the European Parliament the right to be consulted on the nomination of the president of the European commission put forward by the European prime ministers and heads of state.

With the nomination of Santer in 1995, the parliament turned this "right to be consulted" into a "veto right". This veto right was formalised in the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) and was first used for the candidacy of Prodi in 1999.

The procedure in the European Council to nominate a commission president changed as well.

In the Treaty of Nice (2001), the necessary unanimity was replaced by a qualified majority. In 1995 the UK alone vetoed the candidacy of Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene. In 2004 British prime minister Tony Blair had to find a qualified majority to keep another Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, from getting the post.

The fact that a nomination no longer needed unanimity from the EU council, strengthened the power of the EU parliament, which started to demand concessions in return for its approval.

In 2004 Barroso had to back down on his choice of commissioners and come up with a better proposal. In 2009 several political groups added a program to their wishes and demanded that Barroso, now a second-time candidate for the post, promise to deliver.

An important point in the council selection was that the EU leaders would always appoint one of its own peers as the head of the commission.

The Spitzenkandidaten

Until 2004 the weight of the European political parties was almost non-existent. Prodi was not part of the European party system and the liberal Verhofstadt was put forward as a candidate by the socialist German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the centre-right French president Jacques Chirac.

It was the European People's Party (EPP) that organised itself for the first time in 2004 and demanded that the largest party would get the most important post of the EU. This is when party politics entered the commission presidency nomination process.

The rise of the parliament and that of party politics culminated into the new idea of the Spitzenkandidaten (German for 'lead candidate') in 2014. Every political party would put forward one candidate for the presidency of the European commission. The candidate of the party that wins the elections, wins the top job.

With Jean-Claude Juncker everything fell into place. He was a sitting prime minister, one of their peers, he was a lead candidate and he was from the EPP, the largest party.

Equally important was the fact that the two main parties, the EPP and the socialists, were by far the largest parties in the European parliament and in the council. This solid majority made it easy to make a deal and divide all the top jobs between them. Loyalty to the coalition was essential to get a piece of the cake.

The day the game changed

The election results of 26 May 2019 would change everything. The EPP and the socialists from S&D lost their majority in the European Parliament. A third party was needed: the liberals.

However, as the EPP remained the largest party, they did insist on having its candidate, Manfred Weber, to be the next commission president.

But there was another problem. Weber wasn't a prime minister, nor even a former minister. That was for French president, Emmanuel Macron, a no-go.

The third problem was that the Central European countries, mainly the Visegrad 4 states (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) were not willing anymore to follow a old-school compromise between France and Germany, who agreed on the nomination of the socialist candidate Frans Timmermans.

The solution for this list of problems came only after three days of council negotiations: the German minister of defence, Ursula von der Leyen.

As often happens with compromises, nobody was happy. Nevertheless, every political party of the new coalition between EPP, socialists and liberals got a piece of the cake.

However, the day the nomination of the von der Leyen was announced, it appeared that there was a huge problem in the European Parliament.

Disappointed with the defeat of Frans Timmermans, the S&D group would become a liability.

The vote for von der Leyen on Tuesday (16 July) proved to be a mirror of the new political paradigm in European politics. And several lessons can be learned:

1. There is no more solid and loyal coalition in the European Parliament.

2. Political groups cannot force their members to vote 'en bloc'.

3. For every vote in the future, a lot of time will need to be put in finding a majority.

4. Without a new electoral system, accidents on the nomination of the commission presidency will be a certainty.

5. No deals will be possible without including Central Europe in decision making.

One can regret the new lessons, or the new, more chaotic political game in Europe.

However, it is clear that the European Union is becoming more and more political. That is good. It means the EU is becoming more important, but above all, more democratic.

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