As you’ve probably already heard, Ursula von der Leyen, German centre-right defence minister, was confirmed yesterday morning (Australian time) by the European parliament to be the new president of the European commission – that is, head of government of the European Union. She will take office on 1 November.
But she didn’t have a lot to spare. The vote was 383 to 327, with 22 abstentions and another 19 informal, absent or vacant. It was widely remarked beforehand that anything less than 400 votes in favor would mean a dent in her perceived legitimacy. (Her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, was confirmed with 422 votes in 2014.)
Since voting was by secret ballot, it’s impossible to be sure about where von der Leyen’s support came from. In theory she was backed by the three largest political groups, all in the middle of the political spectrum – centre-right, liberal/centrist and centre-left – which between them hold 444 seats.
So we know that she fell short, and we know where most of the shortfall was. Several delegations from the centre-left group, understandably annoyed at the process that had nominated her, had promised to oppose her candidacy.
Politico reports that the Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, French, German and Greek centre-left parties all fell into that category. Those six have 37 seven seats between them, so even their defection would leave her (just) above the 400 mark; in fact she leaked more than another 20 votes somewhere.
The other four groups – Greens, Eurosceptics, far left and far right – were all officially opposing von der Leyen. From the numbers, it looks as if most or all of them held to that, although she subsequently expressed confidence in her ability to win over some of the Greens.
Her position can be expected to improve slightly in the event that Britain ends up leaving the EU, since only 27 of the 73 British MPs belong to the groups supporting her. It’s also been reported that she may have had some support from Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which is not aligned with any of the parliamentary groups.
Nonetheless, it’s a shaky start. Von der Leyen must now negotiate with the member states (other than her own and Spain, which has provided her foreign minister) on the appointment of the other ministers (“commissioners”). Since she allocates portfolios, she has a fair bit of leverage to get governments to appoint the ministers that she wants, but ultimately they are their choice rather than hers – another fairly serious departure from responsible government.
When she has a complete set of personnel, the ministry (“commission”) as a whole has to be approved by the parliament before taking office, which gives MPs another opportunity to make their mark: they have on occasion forced changes in the past.
Only then will she be ready to really start dealing with Europe’s many problems.