Critics See Surprise European Commission Head Nomination as Counter-Democratic

By James Carstensen | July 4, 2019 | 6:37pm EDT
E.U. Commission president-nominee Ursula von der Leyen. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – After five weeks of sometimes heated negotiations, European Union leaders have nominated Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, as head of the E.U.’s executive European Commission, the bloc’s most powerful body which proposes legislation and implements E.U. decisions.

If her nomination is approved by a simple majority in the European Parliament, she would face the difficult task of presiding over a fragmented bloc, at a time of challenging relationships with the United States and China.

The nomination of von der Leyen, who would be the first woman to hold the post, drew criticism from some quarters, as it sidestepped the practice instituted at the last election in 2014, of the nominee being the leading candidate from the parliamentary group gaining the most votes.

Dubbed the “spitzenkandidat” process, it was seen as a more democratic approach, because E.U. citizens were in effect – if indirectly – voting on the person to assume the role, rather than having the nominee foisted on the union by member-states’ leaders.

By that supposed precedent, Manfred Weber, as head of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the biggest single bloc in the European Parliament – should have been the nominee.

But French President Emmanuel Macron strongly opposed Weber, and instead, heads of state during closed-door negotiations eventually agreed on a package deal for the five top E.U. posts, with von der Leyen as E.C. head.

The Greens parliamentary bloc criticized the move, saying it failed to respect recent European election results. Iratxe Garcia, leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) parliamentary grouping, called the nomination “unacceptable.”

“No other major democracy in the world has such a bizarre and arcane method for choosing its political leadership,” Dutch E.U. lawmaker Sophie in ’t Veld tweeted, summing up the view of many of the critics. “Over 200 million people have voted (for European Parliament), but 28 individuals withdraw behind closed doors and play musical chairs.”

The move also attracted sharp criticism in Germany, where even Chancellor Angela Merkel, a long-time ally of von der Leyen’s, was forced to abstain in the nomination due to dissent from her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD).

The decision to revert the nomination process to heads of state appears to be a consequence of the fragmented E.U. election results. For the first time since the bloc’s inception, the two major parties, the EPP and S&D, lost their absolute majority, as a result of strong showings for the Liberals, Greens and euroskeptic populist parties.

Should von der Leyen – an EPP member with no experience in E.U.-level leading roles – head up the next E.C., she will face a challenging parliamentary makeup.

“For the next E.U. Commission, the political environment in the E.U.'s institutional framework will not be simpler,” the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said in a June report.

“Given the growth of E.U.-skeptical parties that now hold a combined 186 seats, votes in the EP will become more controversial – and thus more unpredictable for the Commission and the Council.”

(The European Council is comprised of heads of the 28 member-states, led by a European Council president.)

A recent German Council of Foreign Relations report said that, despite those challenges, it was important for the diverse parliament groups (particularly the EPP, S&D, Greens and the Liberals) to find a common candidate rather than falling back to closed-door negotiations.

“If the heads of state and government circumvent the spitzenkandidat process to reach a deal, it would only play into the hands of the right-wing populists, who accuse the E.U. of having a democratic deficit, of being too far from its citizens, and who would denounce the broken promises of the established parties should the latter carry out any alternative procedure,“ it said.

Donald Tusk, the outgoing European Council president, expressed the hope the European Parliament – when it votes on von der Leyen in mid-July – will be “inspired” by the gender issue.

“For the first time, we achieved perfect gender balance in the top positions,” he told the assembly. “Europe is not only talking about women, it is choosing women.”

In the other top E.U. posts, Belgian premier Charles Michel was elected to succeed Tusk as European Council president, and Italian politician David Sassoli elected as president (speaker) of the European Parliament.

Christine Lagarde, the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was nominated as European Central Bank president, although some raised concerns about her lack of banking experience and allegations of negligence during her time as France’s finance minister.

Finally, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell Fontelles was nominated as the E.U.’s foreign policy chief.

Borrell, who would replace Italy’s Federica Mogherini, is a strong proponent of E.U. cooperation with China, and is a supporter of its controversial Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), a massive international infrastructure program which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described as “bribe-fueled debt-trap diplomacy.”

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