Ursula speaks. It is Tuesday, 16 July, Strasbourg’s big chamber. It is early morning and people are coming in. All the MEPs are invited. Most of them arrive. They take seats, they nod and clap occasionally, they welcome into their new house a very new person, Ursula von der Leyen, who claims to be European at her heart. Will she convince the “House of Europeans” to support her?
It is the speech of her lifetime. But at the same time she is an enigma. The European citizens do not particularly know her yet. Who is she? She did not stand in the European elections. Yes, she is a mother of seven, herself born in Brussels, a doctor and a German politician. But “who is she and, will she be good”?
MEPs in the debate that follows mention the 200 million of citizens who voted in the European elections. Many say that there is the disconnect between her, the candidate, and the elections. That the link that was supposed to be there, is missing.
Many speak “on her behalf”. The European Council did. Individual member states’ leaders did. They spoke of deals, they spoke of secured arrangements. The leaders of political groups issue their demands, securities, guarantees. In all this European politicking of the last month one thing is missing: a Commission President candidate who is a leader, a driver of the process, a political actor.
One of the group leaders comments after von der Leyen’s speech: the learning curve of Europe is steep. Yes, it is steep. But, hey, she has Europe in her guts, she says.
And oh, boy, she delivers. She starts slow, with lukewarm greetings in the room. She talks the green agenda. She wants to be credible and to open up to the continent’s biggest challenge: the climate change. She wants to turn the challenge into an opportunity.
She mentions the obvious and the important: she is an embodiment of the feminist politics. “The fathers and mothers” of European integration include Simone Veil, who was the president, la présidente of the European Parliament 40 years ago. “Thanks to all the women before me” we have the Europe of today: of peace, of unity and of values.
When she says that for her children generation, “Europe is a home” she hits all the right buttons for all the federalists in the house. She may, however, soon discover that general federalism may not be enough. Still, it is honey for the pro-Europeans’ hearts.
She speaks clearly from the heart. Yes, she speaks issues, but she shares personal stories, too. She talks of her father, who worked in the Hallstein Commission in the 1960s. This is why she was born in Brussels. She talks of a refugee she welcomed in her house a few years back. Today he is a young man, a community leader who is fluent in German, English and his native Arabic. One day he wants to go home.
You cannot deny her standing on the migration issues. Her credibility cannot be greater on Europe and migration as she is a living proof on both. Those values are real. The problems may begin elsewhere.
The climate. Ursula von der Leyen speaks of challenges of globalisation, digitalisation and the climate change. “The citizens feel them in daily life” and “none of the challenges will go away”.
She embraces multilateralism, rules and fair trade. In doing so the climate challenges and goals will need to be scaled up. The current goals are not sufficient. She supports cutting CO2 emissions by 50%, “maybe 55%” by 2030 and reaching the carbon neutrality by 2050. Ursula calls it “the Green deal for Europe” and promises a European Climate Law for 2050.
We have to do it the European WayUrsula von der Leyen, Strasbourg, 16 July 2019
Sustainability is important, so a trillion Euro in a decade should be spend on appropriate investments. In the process the European Investment Bank will be turned into a climate bank. Economic activities generating CO2, like aviation and the maritime sector, shall be included in the CO2 emissions cuts. “Emissions must to have a price”. She talks carbon leakage – to make sure that the European production does not migrate away due to the increased costs of emissions. She talks carbon taxes.
For the underprivileged in the transition process there needs to be a transition fund, Just Transition Fund and I hesitate if it is a name already…
When von der Leyen finishes to talk climate it is clear: she says bye-bye to the support of the ECR and reaches out to the Greens, who said “no” last week. But she also reaches out beyond the Greens to the Social-democrats to secure their support.
Social Market Economy
The economy. This is where the economic talk turns to “social market economy”. This is a message mostly towards the S&D and Ms von der Leyen’s home group, the EPP. She says the tech giants need to pay their share. She opts for a “fairer, more equal Union” and that “the fight for fairness never stops”. To which later on the S&D leader will ask for more details.
Ursula von der Leyen talks minimal wage that allows for a decent life. She supports insurance against unemployment, and echoes the EP’s call to triple the spending on Erasmus. She wants to work on the Social Pillar, especially on children education and children healthcare. Women’s rights are important; the Commission President candidate would like the EU to adhere to the Istanbul Convention on action against violence against women and domestic violence.
Women are so important and make half of the society. Hence half of the College of Commissioners shall be female. If member states do not send female candidates, the Commission President candidate says she is ready to send them back home to achieve full parity.
The European Rule of Law
Third, the rule of law. “There will never be a compromise when it comes to respect of the rule of law”, says Ursula von der Leyen and receives stronger support than before. Over last ten days there were suspicions (expectations) towards certain deals she may make with the ECR group in exchange of their support for her. Today ECR later will express their disappointment and the left wing groups’ welcome of her position. Her strong stance may bring her support from some disenfranchised EPP members, too.
Her take on the rule of law is to support a new EU-wide rule of law mechanism, to be complimentary with existing procedures. Interestingly, the candidate talks about the Commission to be “independent” guardian of the treaties: “Lady Justice is blind”.
Credible she is, will she be able to deliver? This was the issue that has shaken the “political” Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker. The reasons are the deep divisions between member states. “We need empathy and decisive action”, says Ursula von der Leyen, but “there are the legitimate concerns for many”. How to square a circle?
Clearly the candidate supports the ambitious agenda, but the problems with ambition in this area are not in the Parliament, but with the Council and its member states.
The Foreign Affairs
“The world needs more Europe”, says the candidate. It may well be true, but how to deliver? Ms von der Leyen supports transatlantic relations and NATO, but does not mention United States, United Nations or enlargement. She does not talk Russia nor China. She talks European defence.
She does talk Brexit. “We regret it and we respect it” and offers a possible extension of the 31 October date, if necessary. “The United Kingdom will remain our partner, our ally and our friend”, overstates the candidate. Let us see how the relations look like with the incoming new British PM.
The candidate was not a Spitzen-candidate. Clearly this generates a new source of a democratic deficit. There is a new ditch that needs to be addressed. There are three elements on how to further democratize the Union.
First is the new Conference on the Future of Europe that shall begin in 2020, and run until 2022. This is a promise delivery for the Renew Europe group.
Second is the promise to work on making the Spitzen-candidate a reality “next time around” in 2024, on its visibility and on transnational lists (idea popular in the European Parliament, most recently promoted by the French President Emmanuel Macron).
Third is the idea of giving the Strasbourg chamber a right of legislative initiative. This would effectively mean that should the European Parliament adopt a legislative resolution the issue will be dealt with politically in the Commission.
“Europe is not about war any more”, as our Europe “has grown up, has matured”, claims Ursula von der Leyen. The European Union is like a marriage, in which we argue, disagree, and reconcile. The candidate finishes with “I call on all Europeans to play their parts”, “Long live Europe” and “Vive l’Europe”.
The EPP and Renew Europe give her a standing ovation. Clearly the two groups are in her camp. This is, however, not enough.
Manfred Weber of the EPP says he expects the Social-democrats to deliver on the package, that includes a S&D President of the Parliament and High Representative.
Iratxe Garcia of the S&D quotes Willy Brandt from forty year before, who regretted that the European democracy was moving so slowly. Half of the people watching is wondering: “she is about to agree with Brandt and accept the slow progress, or will she deny the step-by-step progress and demand a jump into the unknown?”. At one point Ms Garcia mentions that S&D does not want a constitutional crisis. The group decision will be taken this afternoon.
The Greens are confused. They said “no” last week, but clearly today’s speech “is a step forward”, says the co-chair of the group Philippe Lamberts. He is still critical on many details, but the confusion among the group leadership is clear. The Green group’s meeting would be interesting to follow, as many individual Green MEPs could actually support the candidate von der Leyen.
The ID is against, naturally.
Mr Farage is offensive, naturally.
The ECR group is disappointed. Clearly the candidate was reaching out to them in recent days. On Sunday CDU representatives met the Polish ruling party PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński to talk support, but all this has failed on Monday night when Beata Szydło was defeated second time. Her candidacy for EMPL chairwomanship was rejected 19 to 34. In a few days Ms Szydło support has diminished instead of increasing (first vote was 21:27).
Don’t expect the ECR to support Ms von der Leyen.
GUE/NGL also expressed a negative position.
Will she pass? The decision is with the S&D. The reaching out has been made. It was a good speech. With it Ursula von der Leyen has solidified the centrist, pro-European majority. Now this majority should deliver with the evening vote in a few hours.
Another pro-S&D move is the departure of the Commission Secretary General Martin Selmayr, announced this morning.
If Ms von der Leyen is confirmed she is voted by the EPP-RE-S&D majority with some individual MEPs breaking the ranks, such as the German SPD, the most outspoken critic of the candidate from within the S&D, and some other incidental support (for example, the individual Greens or M5S, who are independent).
Will she? The self-proclaimed No. 1 opinion leader of the Brussels decision-making and journalistic circles claims:
The self-proclaimed No. 1 opinion leader of the Brussels French decision making and journalistic circles likes the speech, too and asks a question about the Greens being on the same page as the ID, which suggests he would like the Greens to reconsider:
I’d say, Brussels/Strasbourg is ready to say “yes” to Ms von der Leyen. So, what say you, European Parliament?