Brussels Behind the Scenes: EuroCon

Brussels Behind the Scenes: EuroCon
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Credit: European Commission


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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave her big annual speech this week. Nestled among the soundbites about solidarity with Ukraine and promises to make sure Europe rides out the coming winter, she offered a clue about her own future.

The annual State of the European Union speech – delivered by Commission presidents since 2010 – has taken on more importance and pomp with every passing year.

People actually tune in to watch it these days and even Instagram and Twitch influencers incorporated this year’s edition into their social media output. EU politics is becoming more mainstream, as world events dictate where people’s limited attention spans fall.

Ursula von der Leyen ensured this year that she dressed for the part, decking herself out in the yellow and blue of Ukraine – and, of course, the EU – while a good number of her Commissioners did the same.

That even allowed for an Avengers Endgame-style team photo of the EU’s female heroes, ahead of the president’s big address.

You can watch or read the speech for yourself here if you didn’t already. Von der Leyen has won a lot of plaudits for growing into her role as ComPres year-by-year, speaking emphatically and clearly about the EU’s role in geopolitics.

One could make the argument that she really is better suited to Charles Michel’s job, that of European Council president, than the head of the EU’s civil service. But that’s a debate for another day.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

What was interesting from her speech was the president’s musings about how to reform the EU in the medium- and long-term. It’s not a new notion by any means but the public nature of her commitment opens up a lot of questions.

“As we are serious about a larger Union, so must we be serious about reform,” von der Leyen said in her speech, adding that she supports the idea of a European Convention and eventual treaty change.

This would not be the first convention. In 2001, former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was appointed head of a process tasked with drafting a constitution for the European Union.

Ultimately, the constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters in subsequent referendums, torpedoing the effort. EU leaders then agreed to amend the treaties, finally coming up with the Lisbon Treaty, which still underpins EU day-to-day business.

So this is a big deal. Treaty change is a dirty word in Brussels as everyone sees it as a sealed Pandora’s Box. Open it and everyone will want to stuff something back into it, inevitable infighting might mean that nothing is ever agreed.

Just take a look at how certain governments have behaved during the various rounds of Russia sanctions negotiations. Vested interests take over immediately, with little space to broker a common good for everybody.

But the EU must reform. The debate about scrapping vetoes for matters like foreign policy and tax matters is getting more forceful, Russia’s war has increased the need for better defence and there may soon be new members that have to be accommodated.

A convention is the logical next step after the Conference on the Future of Europe, a hard-to-explain democratic process that seemingly lasted forever and which had few tangible outcomes.

It did at least whittle down the list of issues that need treaty change to be enacted and gives the Commission, Parliament and EU governments food for thought as they kick off this institutional process.

Empty promise?

However, von der Leyen may have been playing a slightly different game in Strasbourg than previously thought. One that is more about securing her own future than Europe’s.

When asked by reporters after the speech what the next steps for the convention would be, a spokesperson said that “there is no timeline that we have in mind, but we are very happy to work with the Parliament and the other institutions in order to identify the best way and the best moment to launch the work.”

Understandably, that means that this is not a priority for her administration. Inflation, sky-high energy bills, climate change and a whole host of other problems are currently the main items on the agenda.

It may be then that the promise to get serious about reform is a signal to MEPs that von der Leyen is the right woman for the job and that to get it all done, she will need another five years in charge once her first mandate is over in 2024.

The process for picking the next Commission boss is still not clear. Von der Leyen was parachuted in by the European Council at the eleventh hour, torching the Spitzenkandidat process so beloved by the Parliament in the process.

She promised to ensure that it would be different next time and although different resolutions and proclamations have been made about pan-European lists and the like, a final decision still has to be made.

So looking at it through that lens, you can imagine that this State of the Union was a bit of early campaigning by von der Leyen, teasing MEPs with promises of precious reform, so if or when she is reliant on their support, she has cards to play with.

Noted federalist Guy Verhofstadt, who ran unsuccessfully for the Commission top job in the past, told von der Leyen that “we[the Parliament] will hold you to that!” when she issued her call for a convention. She may give MEPs that opportunity.

If a convention is successfully launched, we can already start speculating about who will be put in charge of it. Giscard d’Estaing was the political A-lister given the job last time, so you can bet that a similar top name will be courted next time.

Not just for the prestige of having a former president or prime minister, but to ensure that there is more public interest and therefore scrutiny of the process.

A certain former German chancellor has been rather quiet of late and although her standing has taken a bit of a hit given her Russia policies when she was in charge, a Merkel-led reform of the EU would be a huge get.

This process will take a long time, that is an absolute certainty, and it may not even kick off until the second half of the decade, especially if a couple more crises strike in the meantime and draw focus.

If EU heads wanted to continue the run of appointing former French presidents, then Emmanuel Macron might have even finished his second and last term in office by that point. One struggles to think of a more perfect next job for him if that were the case.

In your columnist’s view, the job would ideally go to someone under 50 and who isn’t from the traditional heartlands of EU bureaucracy like France, Germany or – please god no – Luxembourg.

Who knows what they will be doing by that point but the refreshing attitudes of Finland’s Sanna Marin and Estonia’s Kaja Kallas would be perfect for this process. They would be able to focus on what the EU should look like, without being dragged down by its past.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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