You’d think Germans would be excited, maybe even a little patriotic, with the announcement that one of their own would become President of the European Commission, for the first time in fifty years. The first woman ever to head the Commission might also be an event worth celebrating. Instead, after marathon talks, following less-than-conclusive parliamentary elections, many Germans have been left wondering, “what was the point of all that?” Ursula von der Leyen’s face was nowhere to be seen in the posters plastered throughout Germany amidst the campaign for Europe’s top job. “Who needs a Spitzenkandidat,” (top candidate) one wonders, “when you can have a Homecoming Queen?
At first glance, the affable, multilingual, pro-Europe German Minister, once thought to be a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, might seem too good to be true. Germans will be the first to tell you she absolutely is. “Von der Leyen is our weakest minister,” former European Parliament President, and former leader of the Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, put bluntly. A fellow Christian Democrat, and one of von der Leyen’s predecessors as Minister of Defense, was even more explicit. “The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic,” said Rupert Scholz, Defense Minister under Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Starved for resources after the end of the Cold War, it’s said the ministry is often a career killer. Thus, anything sort of cataclysmic failure can be regarded as a relative success. It’s clear, that among friend and foe alike in German politics, von der Leyen failed to clear even this low bar.
Indeed, the highly-visible, personalized continent-wide campaign, comparable to American presidential elections, was supposed to prevent these backroom deals and corrupt bargains. Every parliamentary faction— left, right, and center, pro- and anti-Europe— had their own presidential candidate, ostensibly to be chosen by whoever could convince the most MEPs. Evidently, each candidate was deemed unacceptable by the others. Populist parties have thrived in recent EU elections in large part because the European Parliament is seen by many as having little more power than a student government. Too many important decisions, affecting increasingly numerous aspects of European life, are made not by parliamentarians in the grande debating chamber, but by Eurocrats in back rooms. This won’t help.
Back in Germany, the Defense Minister’s surprising nomination has touched off a squabble between parties in the Bundestag. The Greens— now in first or second place, depending on the poll— and Social Democrats, Chancellor Merkel’s junior coalition partners, have vowed to block von der Leyen’s nomination. Even the CDU’s conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, blasted the deal. Markus Soeder, a close ally of the center-right’s Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber, called it “a classic victory of backroom politics over democracy.” The Christian Democrats, on the other hand, just seem to want to be rid of their troublesome Defense Minister. A Merkel spokesman reminded his domestic audience that it was up to the European Council, not Germany’s coalition government, to choose the next president.
Despite winning the support of all other EU leaders (Merkel abstained), von der Leyen’s presidency is far from a done deal. The choice still must be ratified by an absolute majority in the 751-member Parliament. While some parliamentarians will object to von der Leyen personally, others will be hard pressed to abandon the newly-agreed upon Spitzenkandidat system. Whoever assumes Europe’s top job will have their work cut out for them. While the worst days of economic crises and bailouts are over, the bloc must still work out other issues, such as a common defense policy, migrants and refugees, and an ever-deepening democratic deficit. Only Nixon could go to China, so perhaps only Ursula can revitalize Europe.