What Ursula did next

What Ursula did next
Credit: EC

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What Ursula did next

Germany’s new government unveiled its coalition agreement this week and among the details about foreign policy, climate measures and budget wrangling, one salient point stands out: the future of the European Commission presidency.

A deal between the three big winners of Germany’s federal elections – the socialists, liberals and greens – took a mere two months to broker, meaning Angela Merkel’s record-breaking run as chancellor will end before the year is out.

The headlines from the agreement include a new date for getting rid of coal from Germany’s energy mix, a tougher stance on rule of law breaches and a slight willingness to be more flexible on the EU’s fiscal rules. 

But one little detail, about which party will be tasked with picking Germany’s next European Commissioner, could affect the way EU policy is crafted for the next decade or so, as the Greens managed to secure that particular privilege. 

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Ursula von der Leyen, the current president of the Commission, currently holds that job and will – barring any kind of major incident – head the EU’s executive branch until 2024, when this legislative cycle ends.

A bit of a reminder first as to how von der Leyen, the first female president in the EU’s six decades of existence, got the nod to lead the Commission all the way back in 2019.

Essentially, she was not supposed to get the job.

Her predecessor, Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, was appointed in 2014 thanks to the results of the Spitzenkandidat system, a then-new method of awarding the Parliament’s largest political grouping the Commission presidency after the EU elections.

It was designed to give EU voters a say over who gets the Commission presidency, which in turn grants that individual a stronger, more political mandate. The ultimate aim was to make “unelected Brussels bureaucrats” a completely untrue statement.

Juncker was at the time a popular figure and a well-respected member of the EPP group, which duly triumphed in the polls, landing him the job ahead of other candidates such as Guy Verhofstadt and Alexis Tsipras.

That system was meant to be used again in 2019. The EPP’s Manfred Weber, the Socialists’ Frans Timmermans and the liberal group’s Margrethe Vestager all lined up and threw their names into the hat. One of them was meant to take over from Juncker.

However, it did not pan out that way as the EPP were the surprising victims of their own popularity, topping the polls once again but finding themselves saddled with a candidate that nobody in the EU Council particularly wanted to see given the job.

Timmermans was seen as too divisive, the liberals simply were not powerful enough to get Vestager into the job and the EPP were not willing to surrender their claim to the throne, even if they were not prepared to fight tooth and nail to do right by Weber.

In the end, after hours upon hours of back room horse-trading, Spitzenkandidat was abandoned, von der Leyen was parachuted in from nowhere and grand titles were crafted as consolation prizes for Timmermans and Vestager.

Big promises were made that next time Spitzenkandidat would definitely be respected and the results of the elections honoured. Initiatives like the ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe are meant to prepare the ground for that decisive moment in 2024.

Von der Leyen herself has even indicated that there will be no repeat of the grubby deal that ultimately put her in the job.

Days numbered?

The outcome of the German coalition talks means that von der Leyen is going to have to make good on her pledge that Spitzenkandidat be used to either renew her mandate or appoint the next Commission president. She will also have to rely on the EPP maintaining its EU election winning streak.

Even though the Greens will have first say over picking a Commissioner candidate, that only comes into play if the president of the institution does not come from Germany. Essentially, if von der Leyen can keep herself in contention for the big job, she might get a second term.

Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that von der Leyen will get the nod to continue in Brussels. This is not like Vestager or Timmermans hailing from political parties that are not actually in power back home. If Ursula does not become president again, she is almost certainly out.

There are a great deal of assumptions at play here. Firstly, that the current president would want another five years in a job that many say is a totally thankless task. Juncker, after all, limited himself to just one term.

Given the crisis-after-crisis, day-to-day operations that von der Leyen has had to oversee, it would not be totally surprising if the human-being in her did not want to continue. She is also reportedly considering a return to the Merkel-free domestic political landscape.

Secondly, it is no given that the EPP will triumph again. It is impossible to predict more than two years out, but take a look at the current makeup of the Council: just six EPP leaders sit around the table when just a few years ago the group dominated proceedings.

Thirdly, Spitzenkandidat has only been used once and the political logistics of it are still to be fully worked out. Von der Leyen would probably have to run on a transnational list, the political legitimacy of which is still yet to be determined.

Lastly, the Council still holds most of the cards. Prime ministers and presidents ditched the system last time because it was not to their liking, there is little to suggest that would not happen again if enough vested interests were at stake. 

This is the backdoor way for von der Leyen to get a second term without resorting to Spitzenkandidat, if the Council decides continuity with her is their best option. However, this would wreck her legitimacy and it is hard to believe that the German government would allow it to happen, having already clearly spelled out its wishes.

Nevertheless, safeguards may have to be put in place before 2024 to prevent the Council from resorting to behind-doors favour-trading again.

So in the event that the current president is ruled out of the running by any of these factors, then the Greens would be free to propose their own candidate to whoever takes over from von der Leyen.

Given the trajectory of EU policies and the priorities of the Greens, you would be a brave individual to bet against them seeking the climate and/or energy portfolio for their Commissioner. 

That candidate would be the first legit Green Commissioner to take up office in the Berlaymont (if other governments in Europe do not go green themselves too by 2024).

Whichever way you look at it, the German Greens have got a very powerful trump card to play. We will now have to wait and see what Ursula von der Leyen actually wants to do. The next two-and-a-half years will probably fly by…

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, The Brussels Times’ 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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