The “Americanization,” meaning the trivialization of European politics, is proceeding apace, as we saw yesterday when Council President Donald Tusk announced the nominations to the four highest positions in the European Institutions agreed by the 28 heads of state meeting in Summit. Tusk directed attention to one feature relating to the nominees for Council President, Commission President, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and President of the European Bank: gender equality. The candidates being put forward to the European Parliament for approval are two men and two women.
In news coverage of the nominations on both television and print media, both in Europe and in the United States, the headline remarks matched Tusk’s, though a few more elements in the horse-trading behind the given nominations were also mentioned, as I will detail in a moment.. We are told that for the first time in its history the EU is about to elevate women to the most responsible positions.
This attention to gender is precisely in line with the evolution on national politics in the United States over the past seventy years or more. In the person of John Kennedy, Americans elected the first Catholic president. Barack Obama was nominated and was eventually elected as the first black in the nation’s highest office. Insofar as there was a positive message in her campaign and not merely reproval of the misogynist and hate monger, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton ran on the expectation of being the long awaited first female president of the USA.
The commonality between the gender politics in the politically correct EU highlighted by Tusk and the promotion of candidates from “minorities” as a token of inclusiveness in the United States is the ad hominem nature of the reasoning. Planned programs, policy orientation, not to mention relevant professional experience and track record or, dare we say it, competence are nowhere to be seen here.
To put it in a less kindly light, the way the nominations of candidates for the four leading positions in the EU were presented to the public amounts to intentional diversion of the European voting public from the essence of politics, which is how the pie is divided up, who in the population gets what from the economy, that is to say the social and economic dimensions.
In what was intended to be more serious analysis of the nominations in the media, the most critical comments concerned the lack of transparency in the decision-making process, which went on behind closed doors by the 28 heads of state meeting in their capacity as the European Council. This we heard on the most widely viewed broadcaster in Europe, Euronews, in its “Raw Politics” program. The same commentators also sounded off on the question of non-adherence this time to the practice of nominating for the Commission President a so-called Spitzenkandidat, i.e. the person put forward by the party in the incoming European Parliament with the greatest number of seats, meaning the party able to muster a majority. In this year, that candidate would have been Manfred Weber, of Germany’s Christian Democrats, within the European People’s Party bloc of the European Parliament. Weber had the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
However, for reasons that are not yet clear, other than the known opposition to the candidacy by French President Emanuel Macron, Weber was sidelined and other candidates were placed before the Council for review. Among them, the apparent front-runner was the former Dutch foreign minister and current Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who was the Spitzenkandidat of the center-left coalition in the EP. His appointment would have conformed to another EU tradition of alternation in office of politicians from center-left and center-right.
But Timmerman’s candidacy was opposed by the Polish and Hungarian heads of state, who could not forgive the Dutchman’s rebukes over the alleged recent degradation of judicial independence in both countries, acting in his capacity as Commissioner with responsibility for Rule of Law.
In the event, the Poles and Hungarians won the battle and lost the war. As it turned out, the nomination for President of the European Commission went to a German politician, a member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet and fellow party member of the Christian Democrats, Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen. Apart from being a political conservative by her party allegiance, the only political conviction to figure in The New York Times and other mainstream media accounts is that she is a strong advocate of greater European integration leading to the creation of a “United States of Europe.” Thus, she is pulling in exactly opposite direction of the East European Euro-skeptics and defenders of national sovereignty.
We also hear on the BBC and Euronews, read in the Belgian and French newspapers of record that von der Leyen had the strong backing of President Macron. But why Macron would have supported a member of Merkel’s cabinet that the Chancellor herself had overlooked is not explained. Only a few hints are dropped. We are told that von der Leyen is a fluent French speaker, having been born and educated in Brussels. And we know that by promoting a German for the Commission President, Macron could expect to have a compatriot and fellow liberal banker selected to head the European Central Bank as a return favor, which is precisely what happened: the 28 heads of state approved the nomination of former French Finance Minister, current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde to take over the ECB from Mario Draghi.
Intriguing as these personal details surrounding the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen may be, to which I might add, the often repeated remark that she is the mother of seven children, another irrelevancy that our journalists toss into the mix to heighten our appreciation of her femininity, there is a key political dimension to her nomination that they seem to omit systematically: her position on EU integration and the very concept of a United States of Europe puts her directly in line with the views of the bloc in the European Parliament with which Macron and his République en Marche party is aligned: the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe, headed by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. This is not a small point: it is crucial for any understanding of how the European Parliament will function in the coming five years during which the traditional ruling bloc of Center Right and Center Left parties has lost its majority in the 26 May 2019 election. They will maintain their control in combination with ALDE, which formerly held about 9% of the seats in Parliament, but now with better electoral returns in several countries this past May and with the infusion of circa 22 seats controlled by Macron, represents about 15% of the Parliament.
Let us recall that ALDE has a longstanding record of calling for the creation of a European Army, that its foreign policy might be described as neo-imperialistic, and that it has been regularly irresponsible in its anti-Russian grandstanding measures, going beyond mere sanctions to the passage of a European version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act. In this regard, Ursula von der Leyen, who has often spoken out against Russia and might be described as a model Cold Warrior, fits the ALDE political profile to a tee.
Valuable as this insight may be, it does not exhaust the lessons on present-day European Union politics that we saw in the nomination of candidates for the four top executive posts.
In the nominee High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, namely the Socialist Foreign Minister of Spain, Josep Borrell, we see the resumption of an EU tradition. Prior to the creation of the given office, the EU’s long time head of diplomacy and security was the Spaniard Xavier Solana. And in the nomination of outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to be President of the European Council, replacing Donald Tusk, we see a resumption of a role previously accorded to the Belgian who preceded Tusk in this office, Herman van Rompuy.
Both van Rompuy and Michel are being described by the European press as possessing particular talent in coalition building and striking compromises. Of course, within Belgium Michel is seen differently: as the willing stooge of his French liberal party’s larger coalition partner, the Flemish N-VA.
All of which brings us back to the question of one quality that I mentioned above in passing: the competence of those being promoted to head the key European institutions.
Let us assume that in every respect, Christine Lagarde is fully competent and experienced to fulfill the post of head of the European Central Bank. About Michel, my negative remark is offset by the nature of Council President’s responsibilities: this is in fact a redundant executive post without any obvious powers. About the Spaniard Josep Borrell, I have no information to judge, as he has not been a prominent figure on the European stage. In his case, time will tell.
This leaves us with Ursula van der Leyen, whose new position as Commission President does have considerable power in setting and implementing the programs of the EU Institutions generally. Here there are very serious questions that even our somnolent media have detected though they speak about them sotto voce and without drawing the obvious conclusions.
It was remarked by numerous commentators that her nomination received the approval of 27 out of the 28 Member States. The one abstention was her home country of Germany! What normally would be a red flag was let drop, excused by the observation that there was a dispute within the ruling coalition of CDU and Social Democrats over her nomination. However, the dispute was precisely over Ursula van der Leyden’s competence if not over her integrity as Minister of Defense. Her Ministry has come under attack for very poor performance, and there have been allegations of nepotism and misconduct in awarding military contracts. Thus, it is quite remarkable that she sailed through the nominating process on the strength of Macron’s backing and assorted horse-trading about which we can surmise only after all the Commissioners are nominated and approved in the European Parliament over the coming days.
The dry residue from all the foregoing is that the revolt against the elites, the Euro-skeptic movement that raised anxiety among the defenders of the political status quo in the days before the May elections to the European Parliament have been without effect. The undemocratic habits of the past will continue unchanged under the new ruling majority hobbled together with ALDE. And the predisposition of the European Institutions to wage a New Cold War will continue unabated even if we have new faces and new personalities wielding the reins of power.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019