The nomination of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president came as a surprise. And many are unhappy. It not only undermines efforts to make the EU more democratic, but she may not be confirmed.
And there she is. Ursula von der Leyen has taken a seat on the podium in the parliamentary group chamber of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Strasbourg, a smile glued to her face. Once the cameras have left the room, she turns to the man on her left, the biggest loser in the competition for positions of power in Brussels.
“You’re still young,” she says, consolingly, to Manfred Weber, who was the EPP’s lead candidate in the European elections held in late May. With center-right political parties having won the election, Weber had hoped to land the job of European Commission president. But the position was handed to von der Leyen instead, a woman who has never once campaigned for a European Parliament seat or other job in Brussels. “You have demonstrated greatness,” she told Weber, according to meeting participants.
She then switches easily to French and speaks about her childhood in Brussels and about her father, who worked for the Commission at the time. She then moves on, discussing the years she lived together with her husband in California — now speaking in English.
It was a badly needed marketing appearance for the German defense minister. Many parliamentarians are not amused by the sudden nomination and — though von der Leyen’s multilingual, self-confident speech presented a stark contrast to the prim and proper Bavarian Manfred Weber — her ultimate confirmation is far from certain.
European parliamentarians, after all, campaigned hard for their lead candidates ahead of the vote, telling European citizens that Brussels was becoming more democratic and that back-room decisions were a thing of the past. But now, von der Leyen, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was handpicked by European leaders in a confidential meeting to be installed as the leader of the EU’s executive body. Why?
No Mood To Celebrate
Ursula von der Leyen, a 60-year-old who is passionate about Europe, would be the first German ever to head up the European Commission and the first woman in the position, but nobody in Berlin or Brussels is in much of a mood to celebrate. Her nomination is not a German victory, it is not a stroke of genius on Merkel’s part. Indeed, the German chancellor wasn’t even the person who threw her defense minister’s name into the ring, nor was Merkel able to cast her vote for von der Leyen. Rather, her nomination was a last-second solution to a deadlock.
Indeed, the move brought a grueling process to an end during which almost all of the unwritten rules were broken that political leaders in Brussels had become accustomed to. And the EU lead candidate system was left by the wayside. The system foresaw the leading candidate for the party group that scored the most seats in the European Parliament being considered as the main candidate for nomination as European Commission president.
Merkel, the longest-serving EU head of government and the most experienced Brussels negotiator, was forced repeatedly to change course on personnel nominations by her counterparts and party allies. The Franco-German partnership, which has so often set the EU course in the past, likewise had to yield to pressure from other EU leaders. And the power struggle between EU institutions, such as the one between the European Parliament and the European Council, the powerful body that represents the leaders of the member states, is far from being resolved. If von der Leyen isn’t confirmed by parliament in two weeks, the grappling will begin anew.
If she is confirmed, she will find herself facing an immense challenge, one that is part of Merkel’s legacy: the aftershocks of the euro crisis, the inability of EU member states to agree on refugee policy and the rise of nationalists and populists in Europe. Von der Leyen will be tasked with making the EU capable of making decisions once again, with closing up divisions and with assuaging the widespread frustration that she wasn’t the EPP’s lead candidate. It begs the question: Is this woman — who isn’t even particularly well-liked by her own party back home and whose performance in the Defense Ministry has been less than impressive — capable of doing all that?
Von der Leyen’s nomination has also resulted in conflict within Merkel’s governing coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), with the SPD working against her in both Berlin and Brussels. Were they to succeed in blocking von der Leyen’s nomination, it could lead to a collapse of Merkel’s government.
Finding a Way out of a Difficult Situation
The fragility of von der Leyen’s current position is a direct product of how her nomination came about. A reconstruction of the events leading to that nomination, compiled by way of conversations with actors in Brussels and Berlin, does not leave one with the impression that EU leaders were cleverly pursuing a deeply thought-out strategy. Rather, it seems they were doing all they could to find their way out of a difficult situation.
French President Emmanuel Macron was the first to throw Ursula von der Leyen’s name into the ring. He did so on Monday afternoon, after EU heads of state and government had spent an evening, a night and a morning negotiating without having come any closer to a solution.
By then, Manfred Weber was no longer part of the race, and the idea of installing Frans Timmermans, the social democratic lead candidate with the Dutch Labor Party, clearly didn’t have majority support. Nevertheless, Council President Donald Tusk wanted to submit the package for nomination, but Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte rejected the idea. “No, no.”
The heads of state and government were exhausted and cranky as they sat at the round conference table on the 11th floor of the Europa building. Some of them, including Macron and Merkel, had just returned from the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
A Helping Hand from France
At some point, the group just started throwing out names, and one of them was Ursula von der Leyen. She had already been rejected once, but that was for the position of top European diplomat and not for the most powerful job in the Commission.
Élysée Palace, though, had long had von der Leyen in its sights. Because Macron could not accept Weber, Paris early on began casting about for names they could present to Merkel for senior posts in Brussels. After all, Macron and his team weren’t necessarily opposed to having a German in the position. Macron’s team says that the French president mentioned the possibility of Ursula von der Leyen being elevated to a top EU job on several occasions even before the European elections and again during a visit with CDU Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in Paris in early June. He also apparently considered German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier to be a good candidate.
Paris values von der Leyen’s commitment to Europe in addition to her engagement in social issues — a woman who may not have been the best defense minister, but who revolutionized conservative German family policy back when she was Merkel’s family minister. And von der Leyen did her part to get on Macron’s good side. In a 2017 interview in DER SPIEGEL shortly before his election, she said: “Macron is a convinced, engaged champion of the European idea who will strengthen the European family and lead it into the modern age.”
The fact that von der Leyen can speak French and has never called into question the European Parliament’s second seat in Strasbourg also helped her case in Paris.
Macron also realized early on that the German minister knew her stuff. Since 2017, von der Leyen has been pressing ahead with the largest German-French defense project yet, a new European fighter jet. There has been plenty of resistance, but von der Leyen has not been dissuaded, often negotiating directly with her French counterpart Florence Parly. She last ran into Macron in mid-June at the International Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, where a signing ceremony for the project was held.
But at midday on the Monday of the EU summit, von der Leyen’s name was little more than a test balloon from Macron. A short time later, Donald Tusk adjourned the meeting to give the EU leaders some time to sleep.
It was a break that Merkel, especially, badly needed. The summit had been going poorly for her, as had the entire process of filling top EU positions since the European election. The lead candidate system was one that Merkel only tepidly supported, partly out of her belief that it made little sense without pan-European party lists and also because it made nominating candidates for top EU jobs that much more difficult. Merkel likely felt vindicated after the May election when none of the lead candidates appeared to have majority support in European Parliament.
The day before she departed for Osaka, Merkel gathered conservative leaders in the Chancellery, a group that included Weber, Kramp-Karrenbauer and Markus Söder, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of the CDU and the party to which Weber belongs. The meeting also included Joseph Daul of France, who is leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. It was during this meeting that Weber recognized that he had no chance, say Chancellery sources, and declared himself satisfied with the position of European Parliament president. That could have cleared the way for Timmermans, which would have meant that at least one of the lead candidates ended up in the position of Commission president.
That was the plan when Merkel flew to Osaka, and it was one that EU leaders present at the G-20 approved of, even if they had their doubts that the Poles or the Hungarians would support it. After all, Timmermans, from his erstwhile position as deputy Commission president, had often been sharply critical of the two countries for their incursions on the rule of law.
Those familiar with her thinking say that by then, Merkel had begun considering von der Leyen as a candidate for a position in Brussels with perhaps the greatest chances for success. Still, though, she continued to see her defense minister as a potential commissioner in an executive body led by Timmermans or, even better, as the EU’s foreign affairs representative. Nobody from Berlin, it seems, was thinking of von der Leyen as Commission president at that moment.
Government sources say that Merkel, while she was in Osaka, received SPD support for sending von der Leyen to Brussels as a commissioner. And by then, von der Leyen herself had been informed of her possible future in the EU capital, though she said nothing about it.
But nothing went according to plan at the EU summit on Sunday. When Merkel informed the EPP of the Timmermans deal during a pre-summit center-right group meeting at the Academy Palace, she found herself confronted by deep reluctance. Many felt that Timmermans, as the lead candidate for a party group that had lost the elections, should not be awarded with a top position. “I campaigned for Manfred Weber as Commission president,” Romanian President Klaus Johannis, who otherwise tends to be a supporter of Merkel, is said to have complained. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov accused Merkel of having betrayed EPP’s interests. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had already sent a letter of protest to EPP head Daul.
Apparently neither Daul nor Weber had done much to prepare EPP leaders for the shift to Timmermans. The leaders of several EU member states complained that they had only learned of the new plan that morning — from negotiators for other parties. The result was that Merkel, as the bearer of bad news, found herself in the crossfire and didn’t have the necessary weight to convince the rest of the EPP to change course.
The divisions had not been healed by the time the summit began, and no solution could initially be found, not even in private meetings Tusk held with individual leaders during the night.
Macron’s proposal of von der Leyen only began gaining traction on Monday morning and by Tuesday morning, it had become clear that Germany and France had settled on nominating von der Leyen for Commission president and Christine Lagarde for European Central Bank president. Once again, the French-German axis was working.
‘Macron Switched the Light Back On’
And of all people, it was Macron who showed the way out of the crisis, a man who early on in the negotiations had shown just how destructive he could be. “Macron switched the light back on,” says one EU diplomat with respect. Merkel got on the phone to sell the solution back home and also consulted with Söder and Kramp-Karrenbauer, who were on a trip to Israel. Initially, though, the chancellor elected not to inform her coalition partners from the SPD.
At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Merkel and Macron met with Donald Tusk in his office, with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez joining them later. The four of them agreed that the new personnel package might just get the necessary support.
It was apparently Viktor Orbán who rounded up support for the plan from the four Visegrád countries — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — who had spent much of the summit gumming up the works. Orbán had been eager to block both Weber and Timmermans and the Hungarian government spokesman posted a tweet in which he proudly claimed that the von der Leyen solution had come from the Visegrád Group. Either way, the German candidate now had the support of the European Council — though it remains to be seen if the vociferous support of an autocrat like Orbán will prove disadvantageous to her.
Manfred Weber, who was still the official EPP candidate at the time, only learned of the new plan rather late in the game. When the second round of the Brussels summit began on Tuesday morning, the 46-year-old Weber was driving back to Strasbourg, where he would announce his defeat to his party group that evening. “This is where my journey began last September,” he said. “And this is where it ends today.”
A Career-Saving Move?
Meanwhile, von der Leyen’s political future looks rosy once again. Her sudden nomination to the powerful position of European Commission president came at a low point of her political career. Just the previous evening, the minister had been standing stony-faced on a field near Hameln to pay her respects to a young helicopter pilot who had died in a crash. It was the second deadly accident for the German military within a short period.
But that’s not all. Her ministry has been in the headlines for months due to massive cost overruns, a seemingly never-ending series of mechanical difficulties experienced by government airplanes and a parliamentary committee investigation into potential nepotism and malfeasance among close advisers to the minister. And then there were the comments from Hans-Peter Bartels, who keeps tabs on the German military on behalf of German parliament. He recently said that von der Leyen’s efforts to rejuvenate Germany’s severely under-resourced military were “extremely slow-moving.”
Indeed, it looked as though von der Leyen, despite having survived as head of the Defense Ministry for almost six years, was in danger of sinking into the political quicksand. The times in which she had been seen as a potential Merkel successor ended long ago and she is not well-liked within her party or among conservative parliamentarians and she hadn’t been planning on running for parliament again in the next general election, currently scheduled for 2021. At times, she had even mentioned leaving politics altogether.
Despite her long service in the Defense Ministry, she still isn’t completely accepted by the military. Nobody has forgotten her comment two years ago that the military has an “attitude problem.” She herself now sees the comment as the worst mistake she has made during her tenure and has long since apologized, but it hasn’t helped. Just recently, CDU member Friedrich Merz accused her of having driven soldiers into the arms of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Nobody, though, can accuse von der Leyen of shying away from reform. She has put her stamp on the German military more than perhaps any of her predecessors. She has expanded the Bundeswehr’s cyber capabilities to prepare it for the future, has taken steps to make a military career more attractive to women, fundamentally modernized internal processes and ensured that the military budget, after years of shrinkage, has seen an increase of almost 30 percent during her tenure. But those successes have not helped to improve her image as defense minister.
Experience on the International Stage
Last year, perhaps earlier, von der Leyen began quietly making inquiries regarding her chances for moving to Brussels. Many have said that she was interested in the position of NATO secretary general, but in reality, it was the office of EU foreign affairs representative that she found attractive.
Largely unnoticed by the public, she established an international network that will help her in her new job, should she be confirmed. And only recently could it be seen just how confident she is when appearing on the global stage. Germany had hardly taken over its temporary seat in the United Nations Security Council before von der Leyen flew to New York in April to speak before the international community’s most important body on the role of women in peacekeeping missions. Whereas German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had stumbled through his manuscript in less-than-fluent English a short time before, von der Leyen spoke without notes in fluent English.
There are no set-in-stone qualifications for the position of European Commission president, there is no minimum age nor is there even a legal requirement that the holder be a citizen of the EU. But the multilingual medical doctor Ursula von der Leyen is doubtlessly qualified. And she also has a useful network of contacts within the EU. Most recently, the minister made a trip through the Baltic states and Eastern Europe – to a cyber conference in Tallinn and then for a face-to-face meeting in Warsaw. Aside from a couple of Instagram posts, the public hardly took notice of the trip, but it serves as an example for how she has managed to quietly make contacts across the continent. No other group of leaders threw their support behind von der Leyen as quickly and clearly as did those from Eastern Europe.
How Solid Is Her Support?
The question, though, is whether that support would be lasting. The ideological gulf between von der Leyen, who is on the left end of the conservative spectrum, and the increasingly autocratic, right-wing governments in Warsaw and Budapest could hardly be wider.
On refugee policy, von der Leyen has consistently supported Merkel, and deployed the German military at the height of the 2015 crisis to get the chaos under control. Her family also hosted a Syrian refugee. “He enriched our lives,” she told the weekly tabloid Bild am Sonntag at the time.
In 2016, von der Leyen called for a battle against populism. “We now realize that our democracy can go to the dogs if we don’t pay attention,” she told DER SPIEGEL. And as early as 2011, the passionate European said that her goal was that of a “United States of Europe modelled after federal countries like Switzerland, Germany or the U.S.”
The senior CDU member positioned herself squarely in opposition to growing EU skepticism within her party. But ever since European realities have begun developing in a different direction — from the refugee debate to Brexit — von der Leyen has modified her comments. She has become more cautious, calling for an “army of Europeans” rather than a European army, for example. But her convictions aren’t likely to have changed. It is quite possible that Eastern Europeans will soon regret having helped boost her to the top of the Commission.
Resistance in Berlin
It isn’t, of course, a sure thing that she’ll be confirmed. There is resistance in Berlin as there is in Brussels. The chancellor has been careful to confirm that von der Leyen’s candidacy wasn’t her idea, in part to avoid any conspiracy theories from the CSU or SPD that she torpedoed Weber and Timmermans to push through her secret plan of installing von der Leyen. At the EU summit, Merkel’s people were careful to relate on several occasions just how passionately Merkel fought on behalf of the two lead candidates.
Nevertheless, the SPD was quick to veto the von der Leyen nomination on Tuesday. Which means that the first German nominee for Commission president for 52 years will enter the confirmation process with the support of European heads of state and government, but without the full support of her own government.
Still, resistance to von der Leyen among social democrats is of a different intensity in Berlin than it is in Brussels. In Berlin, it appears that the SPD are in no mood to torpedo the coalition over the issue. Even passionate opponents to the “grand coalition” pairing the conservatives with the SPD have only said that the von der Leyen nomination will be discussed during the SPD’s reevaluation of the coalition planned for the end of the year.
‘Voter Deception from our Point of View’
Achim Post, secretary general of the Party of European Socialists, the European Parliament group of social democratic parties on the continent, said: “The procedure to install a person as Commission president who did not campaign as a lead candidate is unacceptable and amounts to voter deception from our point of view.” Nevertheless, he added that “Angela Merkel behaved correctly in the Council voting by taking into account the SPD’s no.” As such, Post continued, the incident has no bearing on the coalition government in Berlin. “But Ms. von der Leyen must now find a sufficient number of votes in European Parliament.”
Jens Geier, head of German Social Democrats in the European Parliament, threatened that “the SPD will uniformly reject von der Leyen.” The German SPD faction also says that their counterparts from Britain, Austria, France and the Benelux countries are also planning on vetoing von der Leyen’s nomination.
German conservatives are also concerned by the fact that the vote in parliament will be secret. “Instead of being proud and happy that Germany’s influence would be boosted, and with the first woman ever in the position, the SPD is blocking it,” said deputy CDU head Julia Klöckner. “I can’t imagine that such behavior will attract more voters.” CDU Secretary General Paul Ziemiak is also critical of the SPD: “The tactical positioning of the SPD doesn’t just damage the reputation of Germany’s governing coalition, but that of the entire country,” he said.
‘The Speech of Her Life’
But von der Leyen’s biggest problem is likely to be the European Greens. Following the European elections, in which the party did spectacularly well, particularly in Germany, the Greens felt like the victors. Which makes their present disillusionment all the tougher to take. Not only did the Greens not get any of the top positions, they are also the party that has been most passionate in their support of the lead candidate system. “The mood was aggressive,” said one Green Party MEP following the faction’s first post-election meeting.
“Support from our faction for your choice for Commission president seems unlikely to me,” said Green Party lead candidate Sven Giegold. His party colleague Reinhard Bütikofer, co-leader of the European Greens, said that von der Leyen didn’t seem surprised in the least when EU heads of state and government chose her for the position. “As such, she would seem to be a candidate that the European Council was already holding in reserve,” Bütikofer said. “Why should I ratify this farce with my vote?”
Even if German Greens are more open to von der Leyen when speaking off the record, the party is insisting that the candidate must offer one or more Commission posts to the Greens as soon as possible — preferably those for climate or the environment. The question remains, however, whether that would be enough.
And so, von der Leyen finds herself preparing for the final round of Brussels power poker. She has been given a “transition team” of the kind U.S. presidents-elect assemble prior to entering the White House. Seven officials from the European Commission are to help the candidate prepare her speech as the July 16 vote approaches. It will have to be the speech of her life.
By Melanie Amann, Markus Becker, Matthias Gebauer, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christoph Hickmann, Dietmar Hipp and Peter Müller