European Parliament approves von der Leyen as Commission president by narrow margin

Ursula von der Leyen addressing the European Parliament Tuesday prior to the debate and vote on her candidacy for Commission president.
Friday, July 19, 2019

On Tuesday evening, the European Parliament approved Ursula von der Leyen, until her resignation Wednesday the minister of defense in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, as the next president of the European Commission. When she takes office on Nov. 1, she will be the first woman to hold the position. And she will be the first German to hold the position since Walter Hallstein more than 50 years ago.

But although endorsing her nomination by the European Council, the heads of state or government of the 28 member states of the EU, the Parliament did so by the narrowest of margins. By the terms of Article 17 of the EU treaty, approval by the Parliament of the European Council’s nomination requires an absolute majority — that is, a majority of its full membership of 751. With four seats yet to be filled, she therefore needed 374 votes to have an absolute majority of the 747 members. In Tuesday’s vote, 383 MEPs voted in favor of von der Leyen becoming Commission president while 327 voted against her, 22 abstained, there was one void vote, and 14 MEPs were absent. She won, contrary to those who had predicted her defeat. But she did so by a very narrow margin — nine votes.

The narrow majority was the result of the increased fragmentation of an already-fragmented Parliament in the wake of the May election, the objection by many MEPs to the European Council’s refusal to accept the Parliament’s view that the Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) of the party group that wins the most seats in the election should be the next Commission president, and their objection as well to the protracted back-room dealings of the leaders in Brussels, Osaka and various capitals that eventually resulted in von der Leyen’s nomination.

For many years, the Parliament was dominated by two political groups — one on the center-right of the political spectrum consisting of MEPs belonging to Christian Democratic or Conservative parties, the other on the center-left consisting of MEPs belonging to Socialist, Labor, and Social Democratic parties. Together, the two party groups controlled a substantial majority and constituted, in effect, a duopoly that either shared or alternated among themselves the powers and perquisites of the Parliament.

But in recent years, the Parliament has become increasingly fragmented, and the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) no longer hold a majority of the seats while other party groups — those grouping MEPs of Liberal parties, Green parties, and euroskeptic and populist parties — have won more seats. In the May election, the EPP won 182 seats and the S&D won 153 seats. As a result, even if all of the MEPs belonging to the two largest groups were to vote in favor of a nominee, the votes of MEPs belonging to one or more of the other groups would be needed for an absolute majority. The largest of the other groups, Renew Europe, the recently-renamed group of Liberal parties that includes French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche! (LREM) and the British Liberal Democrats, holds 108 seats. The Greens, which counts the German Greens as its largest national bloc, hold 74 seats. The recently-formed Identity and Democracy group that includes, most notably, Marie Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and the Alternative for Germany, holds 73 seats. The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, the largest national bloc of which consists of the MEPs of the Polish Law and Justice Party, holds 62 seats. And the smaller hard left Green - Nordic Left group holds 41 seats. There are also 57 MEPs — including, most notably, the 29 representing Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party and the 14 representing the Italian Five Star Movement — who are non-attached.

Assembling an absolute majority from this complex panoply of parties and party groups would be exceptionally challenging in the best of circumstances. Doing so is even more complicated because the European Parliament, unlike any national parliament, has no system of group and party whips to keep members from straying from the group or party’s preference in a vote. It is further complicated by the fact that the vote for the Commission president is by secret ballot and the votes of the MEPs are not reported, meaning that members can easily defect from the group or party’s preference — and can, of course, subsequently claim to have voted in accord with the group or party’s preference and, as we saw Tuesday, claim credit for the outcome.

As if the complex array of parties and party groupings, coupled with the voting rules, didn’t make it difficult enough for von der Leyen to muster an absolute majority, there were substantial numbers of MEPs belonging to the two largest groups who were opposed to her nomination on procedural grounds. Five years ago, the party groups in the European Parliament, believing that, although the treaties give it the power to appoint the Commission president, the European Council had, because the treaties assign it the task of nominating a candidate, in effect preempted the its appointment power, came up with the idea of each group naming a Spitzenkandidat, a lead candidate who would represent the party group in the election campaign and would, if the party group placed first in the election, become the Commission president. The European Council objected to the idea then and has continued to object to it ever since, although it did nominate the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, Jean-Claude Juncker, to be president of the Commission.  Even those opposed to the Spitzenkandidat concept had to agree Juncker was qualified for the position; he had served as Luxembourg’s prime minister for 18 years, its minister of finance for 20 years, and had just completed eight years as president of the eurogroup.

But this year was different. In preparing for the May election, the EPP group chose Manfred Weber, an MEP for the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and the EPP leader in the Parliament since 2014, as its lead candidate. Weber has spent his political career as an MEP and has no experience in either government or the Commission, and while Chancellor Angela Merkel, the head of a coalition government that includes the CSU, supported him a number of leaders objected his candidacy on the grounds of his lack of experience in government and the Commission. Macron in particular expressed his strong opposition to Weber’s candidacy at the European Council meeting on May 28, several days after the election, and again at its next meeting on June 20. While opposed, in general, to the notion that the Spitzenkandidat of the party group with the most seats should be nominated by the European Council for the position of Commission president, he noted there were other Spitzenkandidaten – most notably, Frans Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister and the current First Vice President of the Commission and Commissioner for Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations and Rule of Law, and lead candidate of the S&D group, and Margarethe Vestager, a former Danish minister of economic affairs, current Commissioner for Competition, and co-leader of the Liberal party group’s “Team Europe” in the election — who were stronger candidates. As Macron left the second meeting, he said, “It is clear there is not a majority around the Council table – in the same way that it became clear this morning [when the leaders of the S&D and the Liberal groups in the Parliament told Weber they would not vote for him] that there is not a majority for Weber.” Following the second meeting, European Council President Donald Tusk said the same thing: “There was not a majority on any candidate.”

Following that meeting, Tusk, Merkel, Macron and several other leaders traveled to Osaka for the G20 meeting and, in a series of meetings, reached a preliminary agreement on a leadership package that included Timmermans as the nominee for Commission president. But that agreement quickly fell apart after the European Council reconvened on June 30, largely due to the opposition of leaders of parties affiliated with the EPP and, in particular, leaders of countries located in central and eastern Europe. Eight of the 28 leaders belong to national parties that are members of the EPP, and six of those eight are leaders of countries located in central and eastern Europe. Nominating Timmermans, who initiated the Article 7 rule of law process against Poland and Hungary and has other central and eastern European states in his sights, would be, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, a “historical mistake.” The combination of EPP leaders opposed to nominating anyone other than the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat or someone else belonging to an EPP party and central and eastern leaders opposed to Timmermans’ actions in regard to Article 7, sank his candidacy. After a three-day marathon of long meetings coupled with many bilateral meetings between Tusk and individual leaders, the European Council finally agreed on a package of new leaders that included Ursula von der Leyen as its nominee to be president of the Commission.

Although the voting rules of the Parliament mean that we may never know precisely who voted for and against von der Leyen on Tuesday evening, it seems quite clear that substantial numbers of MEPs belonging to parties in the S&D and EPP groups, and perhaps some members of Renew Europe as well, voted against her or abstained (which, given the requirement of an absolute majority was equivalent to voting against her). Those three groups have a total of 443 MEPs, 69 more than the required minimum of 374, which implies that, if no MEPs from other party groups supported her, 60 from those three groups voted against her. A significant number of the MEPs of those three groups may have voted against her, at least in part if not largely, because of their objection to the European Council’s rejection of the Spitzenkandidat concept in general and, in particular, its rejection first of Weber and then Timmermans, both of whom were their party group’s Spitzenkandidat. It’s certainly plausible, for example, that some of the 29 German CDU and CSU MEPs — in particular, the six CSU MEPs — may have voted against von der Leyen or abstained in order to express their opposition to the European Council’s rejection of Weber, who represents the CSU and leads the EPP in the Parliament. And it’s certainly plausible, also, that a significant number of S&D MEPs — in particular, the 6 representing the Dutch Labor Party — may have voted against von der Leyen to express their opposition to the European Council’s subsequent rejection, after Osaka, of Timmermans, who was the S&D Spitzenkandidat and led Labor to a dramatic increase in its vote in the EP election. Likewise, it’s certainly plausible that some of the Renew Europe MEPs voted against von der Leyen or abstained (which, as noted above, has the same effect) to express their disappointment that Vestager, who was strongly supported by Macron and others, and widely regarded in the European press as a strong candidate to succeed Juncker, was not nominated.

It’s also possible that some EPP MEPs voted against von der Leyen because of a host of specific programmatic commitments she made in response to written queries from the S&D and Renew Europe groups prior to the vote. In her responses, which she conveyed to the groups prior to the vote, she indicated, for example, that the Commission would propose that all member states require employers to pay a minimum wage — six of the 28 do not — and increase transparency in regard to wage gaps; would provide fiscal support for national welfare systems in times of economic crisis; would ensure greater flexibility in regard to spending constraints on member states; would propose an EU guarantee of free healthcare and education for all children; and would promote gender equality in employment, starting with full gender equality among the 28 Commissioners. In addition, of course, she had previously indicated that she intended to appoint Timmermans and Vestager as the highest-ranking vice presidents of the Commission.

But there’s good reason to think that von der Leyen received support from MEPs belonging to some of the other political groups in the Parliament — which, of course, would mean that more than 60 — possibly substantially more than 60 — S&D, EPP and Renew Europe MEPs voted against her. For example, the fourth largest party group, the Greens, announced a week before the vote that they would vote against her, no doubt prompted in part by their largest contingent, those representing the German Greens, which in the wake of the EP election is the largest center-left party in Germany and no doubt hopes to displace the SPD as the primary opposition to the CDU-CSU in the next election — or sooner, if the current CDU-CSU-SPD coalition breaks up. But von der Leyen’s proposals to introduce a “Green Deal” for Europe that would aim to make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050, reduce EU carbon emissions relative to 1990 by up to 55 percent by 2030, introduce a carbon border tax, extend the EU’s emissions-trading scheme, and earmark a trillion euros over the next decade to address climate change might well have led some Greens to support her, notwithstanding the continued opposition of the group’s leadership.

And there’s good reason, also, to think that von der Leyen received some support from other groups as well. For example, the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has 26 MEPs and is a member of the eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group announced, prior to the vote, that it would support von der Leyen. In the initial organizational meeting of the new Parliament, Poland’s former prime minister, Beata Szydlo, was defeated for the position of chair of its employment committee as a result of the opposition of the S&D and Renew Europe groups. After conversations between the CDU secretary general and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and a subsequent phone call between Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in which Merkel expressed her regret that Szydlo had been defeated, PiS announced that it would support von der Leyen. Whether, as some have suggested, Poland was offered a high-level position in von der Leyen’s Commission, perhaps in charge of energy policy, or some understanding in regard to the Article 7 rule of law process is not yet known. But it is the case that von der Leyen did not mention the current Article 7 process in regard to violations by Poland and Hungary of the rule of law in her speech to the Parliament Tuesday morning.

Hungary’s Fidesz party, which was suspended in March from the EPP (although its MEPs remain in the EPP), also made public its support for von der Leyen, reportedly after receiving assurances with regard to its longstanding desire to receive the Commission’s enlargement portfolio and, perhaps, some assurances in regard to EU policies concerning migration and the resettlement of refugees and perhaps also in regard to the Article 7 process. Characteristically, Prime Minister Viktor Orban took credit for von der Leyen’s appointment through his leadership of the post-Osaka opposition to Timmermans.

And then there’s Italy. Initially, Salvini, a deputy prime minister, minister of the interior and leader of Lega, and Luigi Di Maio, also a deputy prime minister, minister of economic development, labor, and social policies, and leader of Five Star, agreed to support von der Leyen. But when Di Maio opposed Salvini’s preferred candidate for the Commission, Salvini pulled out of the agreement and Lega’s 29 MEPs voted against her appointment. But Di Maio, attracted by her commitments to support a minimum wage for all EU member states (Italy is one of the six states that don’t have one), develop a scheme to provide some degree of counter-cyclical fiscal support in times of economic crisis, provide for flexibility in spending and deficit constraints in the eurozone, address the problem of unusually high rates of unemployment in some regions of some member states (such as the south of Italy), and establish an EU guarantee of free health care and education for all children, continued to support von der Leyen and delivered the votes of Five Star’s 14 MEPs in support of her appointment.

As noted above, the three largest political groups in the Parliament — the center-right EPP, liberal Renew Europe, and center-left S&D — have a total of 443 MEPs, 69 more than the required minimum of 374, which means that if no MEPs affiliated with other party groups supported von der Leyen, 60 MEPs from those three groups voted against her. But assuming, as seems likely, that all 26 PiS MEPs and all 14 Five Star MEPs voted for her, that would mean that at least 100 MEPs of the three largest blocs voted against von der Leyen — and perhaps more if, as seems likely, some Green MEPs were persuaded by her commitments in regard to climate change to support her. If, as seems likely, significant portions of the three largest blocs of MEPs who represent center-left, liberal, and center-right parties that are, broadly-speaking and, unlike both the hard left and the populist and euroskeptic right, pro-EU did not support her appointment, von der Leyen may find it difficult to muster parliamentary support for her exceptionally ambitious legislative program over the next five years. After all, a majority of nine in a legislature of 751 is a formula for legislative stalemate. And the inevitable consequence of legislative stalemate would be failure to address effectively the multitude of challenges — economic, social, geopolitical, constitutional — the EU will face in the years to come.

Ursula von der Leyen and the Commission she leads will soon face all those challenges — the looming threat of a slowdown in the rate of economic growth and an increase in unemployment, the need to complete the banking union and EMU, the need to protect the European economy from the threats to the global trading system emanating from the U.S. and China; the continuing flow of refugees and other migrants to Europe and the need to integrate those who have arrived into the societies in which they find themselves; the continuing efforts by Russia to intimidate its neighbors, intrude into their electoral politics, threaten their territorial integrity, and destabilize their polities; the need to complete the Balkan enlargement process, to resist and reverse the continuing democratic backsliding and violation of the rule of the law in some member states, and, of course, to complete the seemingly never-ending Brexit saga, which will return once again to center stage next Wednesday when Boris Johnson moves into #10 Downing Street.

But in the meantime the EU can celebrate the fact that, although the Parliament very nearly turned its collective back on Ursula von der Leyen’s candidacy just as the MEPs of the new Brexit Party turned their backs when the Ode to Joy, the EU’s anthem, was played at last week’s opening session of the Parliament, in the end it did not, and as a result there soon will be, for the first time in its history, a woman presiding over the Commission.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.