July 03, 2019
A bold but risky choice
It is not a done deal yet. The Social Democrats and the Greens are furious this morning, and Ursula von der Leyen will need their votes for her nomination to succeed. We noted this morning that the chief political commentator of Bild, Nikolaus Blome, is calling on the European Parliament to block von der Leyen’s nomination. He has been one of Angela Merkel’s most loyal supporters in the media. The German establishment believes that what happened yesterday was an undemocratic coup orchestrated by a French president. The SPD doubled down on Martin Schulz¡ initial angry outburst at the decision. The party rejects von der Leyen - so much so that Angela Merkel had to abstain in the Council vote. Jens Geier, the SPD leader in the European Parliament, said the S&D group will reject her. The Greens met last night and decided to take the same position.
But we cannot be sure. Today, the European Parliament will choose its president in a series of votes pitching David-Maria Sassoli, an Italian social democrat, against Ska Keller, a German Green. We would do rule out the possibility that the Social Democrats might be bought. The large Spanish contingent might feel that loyalty to Pedro Sanchez trumps other considerations. The Italian PD will be happy to retain the only Italian influence. We have learned over the years that the spine is not the strongest organ of your average Social Democrat. We would therefore not rule out that von der Leyen could squeeze through. But the political majorities are different from what they used to be. The two largest factions in the European Parliament, the EPP and the S&D, are now significantly smaller than they used to be. And you cannot just add all the numbers of centrist MEPs together and think you have a majority. The super grand coalition is new to Brussels and Strasbourg. It has yet to be tested.
The team of von der Leyen at the Commission, Charles Michel at the European Counil, and Josep Borrell as foreign minister, is remarkable in one respect: this is the most federalist team imaginable. Eurointelligence is delighted for that reason.
Just as significant as this new federalist, west-European flavoured top team is the emergence of Emmanuel Macron as the pivotal figure in the European Council. Michel is his closest supporter. Lagarde is his personal choice. And we don’t think that von der Leyen is a concession to Germany at all - especially judging by the German reaction. He got the most pro-European of CDU members. As the Romans used to say: divide et impera.
This brief observation aside, we don’t like to characterise EU summits in terms of winners and losers. We leave this to the newspapers. The sole thing that matters to us is where the appointments and nominations leaves the EU.
Our first thought yesterday was that the east Europeans will this morning wake up and realise that not a single central or east European candidate is on the ticket. We always said that somebody had to get stitched up in the selection process. You can't have gender balance, political balance and regional balance in a choice of five. In the end, the regional balance condition was sacrificed. The Visegrad Four may be happy to have prevented Frans Timmermans. But is von der Leyen really what they want? And Timmermans will still be in a very senior Commission role, and will always remember who vetoed his ascension every time he looks at his new boss. We think this is a classic diplomatic own-goal for the Visegrad Four.
Will the appointments have an impact on the issue that interests us the most - the future of the eurozone, and of further political integration especially in the field of foreign policy? In this respect, the role of Michel may be more important than that of von der Leyen. Michel and Macron could form a powerful team. Our two favourites to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor are Armin Laschet, the CDU premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, and Robert Habeck, the leader of the Green Party. While different in terms of their political priorities, they are both pro-European. AKK is less predictable given her complete lack of European experience. Her education would start with a Europe map and a Wikipedia search.
Josep Borrell is an interesting choice as High Representative. He is an outspoken European federalist. Diplomacy is not his strength - which in our view makes him particularly suitable for the top diplomatic job. He is the first high-profile politician in this role, and we know that his thinking on the eurozone and on EU foreign affairs - and the important interaction of the two - reflects very much our own.
From our perspective this is a good list, better than any of the numerous lists that were in circulation before. But, even if the candidates are confirmed, this will not bring the eurozone any closer to resolution of the very real issues weighing on it. The Visegrad Four will do what they did before. So will the Hanseatic League. The issues will remain.