The European Union’s top official is struggling.
National governments are reasserting their power, the coronavirus is exposing the EU’s old fault lines with a new ferocity and, six months into the job, some officials who work with Ursula von der Leyen are asking whether she’s up to it.
In the past two months, the president of the European Commission has been scolded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, provoked diplomatic outrage by deriding calls for joint debt issuance and apologized to Italy after the executive’s emergency mechanism failed to rally aid from other member states as it was supposed to.
Her personal travails come at a critical juncture.
With the shock of Brexit still to be properly absorbed, the pandemic has blown a hole in budgets across much of southern Europe and left Italy dependent on the European Central Bank. The Dutch and the Austrians are blocking the sort of aid needed to help Rome stabilize its finances and last week the German constitutional court signaled it’s ready to impose limits on the ECB’s ability to hold the euro area together.
If von der Leyen, 61, could choose a battle to get her presidency on track, she probably wouldn’t have inserted herself in between the ECB and its biggest shareholder. Nevertheless, on Sunday she threatened to sue Germany, risking an unprecedented showdown at a moment when leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France are talking openly of an EU break up. That Germany happens to be her home country gives it all a further political dimension.
The 27-nation bloc will probably muddle through this crisis like it always has in the past. But it’s getting hard to work out how it’ll manage this time. And the commission is adding to the confusion.
Veteran officials describe disarray in the organization von der Leyen has led since Dec. 1. One compared the chaos to the situation in 1999, when a corruption scandal forced the entire leadership to resign.
Some colleagues say that when von der Leyen finds her feet, she’ll prove an effective president. They point to her passion for green issues which, before the pandemic, were supposed to be the centerpiece of her five-year mandate. They say anyone would have struggled with such a major crisis so early on, particularly one that hits the EU’s pressure points, and they ask how much of the criticism is because she’s a woman. The commission’s press office didn’t respond to requests for comment on Sunday night.
Other insiders said that commissioners are briefing against their boss and von der Leyen has tried and failed to exert control.
A feature, not a bug
Believe it or not, this is how it was meant to be. Sort of.
When EU leaders picked von der Leyen last year, they deliberately eschewed candidates with greater experience, charisma or cunning for someone with little knowledge of the machinations of EU politics.
Her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, had stood up to the leaders and at times even showed them up with his deep familiarity with the bloc’s workings. He had a right-hand man in Martin Selmayr who’d already worked at the commission for a decade, knew where the bodies were buried and commanded fierce loyalty from those in his confidence.
Von der Leyen is only the second person in 35 years to become permanent commission president without previously serving as an EU prime minister, and she has neither a power base in Brussels nor an extensive network of back channels to the capitals. She places much of her trust in the advisers she brought from Berlin and they, commission officials said, command nothing like the respect that Selmayr had.
Von der Leyen, a mother of seven and a qualified doctor, became a common fixture in Merkel’s governments before she took her present job. After living in London, California and Berlin, she now sleeps in a converted office near the top of the commission’s headquarters in the center of Brussels.
Merkel wanted someone else
Colleagues say the way she was appointed compromised her authority from the outset.
Others had been campaigning for months to replace Juncker, and von der Leyen hadn’t even been in the running until leaders plucked her from the relative obscurity of the German defense ministry.
When Merkel emerged from the all-night summit negotiations, she acknowledged she’d “pushed for a different result for the entire day.” The former head of Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition parters, Martin Schulz, said the EU had chosen the worst-qualified member of the German cabinet.
In more ordinary times, a hamstrung commission might have been just part of the EU game. The executive could focus on drafting legislation, regulating the world’s biggest single market and negotiating trade deals.
The problem is that the forces driving national capitals apart have suddenly multiplied. The executive is part of the institutional framework that is supposed to hold them together and its weakness is being felt.
In a video message last week, von der Leyen appealed for “solidarity” from all sides. “This solidarity is not self-evident, it’s not a given,” she said. “It requires compromise and effort on everyone’s part.”
Defending the ECB
Officials say that the commission’s work on a plan for economic recovery after the pandemic has been held back partly because von der Leyen lacks the strong ties to capitals that would help her forge compromises. She told the leaders last month she’d have a proposal ready for them by May 6. Last week, the commission said it would miss that deadline and the plan would arrive later in the month.
When Bloomberg obtained a leaked draft late in April outlining a €2 trillion ($2.2 trillion) plan, a commission spokesman said von der Leyen hadn’t even seen it. And it was a shock to leaders too. On a private video conference, Merkel reprimanded her former minister, asking to be informed before such proposals became public in future.
Diplomats said there had also been confusion in some countries over the running of a pledging conference led by von der Leyen earlier this month that raised €7.5 billion for coronavirus treatment and testing.
She’s faced questions in recent days about why she paid an outside company to improve her social media image rather than use the commission’s own advisers. Her spokesman, Eric Mamer, said there had been no impropriety because the contract started before she began the job. However, he added: “If it’s something that needs to be changed then it’s certainly something the commission will consider with great attention.”
Officials said the virus has exacerbated von der Leyen’s problems in controlling the organization she heads, with some commissioners staying in their own countries and briefing their own national media rather than being in Brussels. Even before the pandemic, von der Leyen opted for unusual ways to show she was in charge: in February she held her own news conference on artificial intelligence minutes before two of her commissioners held a separate one launching a white paper on the issue.
Von der Leyen has lost a lot of battles so far in her brief tenure. If she loses again when she attempts to defend the ECB against the German constitutional court, that would put another serious crack in the edifice of EU unity.