February 19, 2021

Von der Leyen’s Not-So-Geopolitical Commission

Member states are calling for a more geopolitical EU. But they’re not giving the Commission the tools to achieve it.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
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When Jean-Claude Juncker took charge of the European Commission in 2014, his “Berlaymont Rasputin” Martin Selmayr quickly introduced a new buzzword into the Brussels lexicon: a “political Commission.”

It was in many ways a power grab, an effort to make the EU executive more powerful in relation to the European Council of national governments. It was also a departure from the “lapdog presidency” that existed for the previous ten years under José Manuel Barroso, who seemed to view the Commission as a civil service executing the Council’s orders. It also reflected the fact that Juncker was the first Commission President to ever be "elected," as the European People's Party’s (EPP) lead candidate in the 2014 EU election which used the new Spitzenkandidat process.

Five years later, when another EPP politician took over the reins in 2019, she added three extra letters—“geo.” It was not so much Ursula von der Leyen’s original idea as it was a request from the national leaders who had put her in office, particularly French President Emmanuel Macron. The Brussels buzzword is now “strategic autonomy,” an effort to wrestle the word "sovereignty“ away from nationalists and make the case that only a strong EU can make Europeans truly sovereign in relation to Russia, China, and the United States.

The problem was that unlike Juncker, von der Leyen had not been chosen as a result of a European election. She had been chosen in a messy, embarrassing showdown between national leaders and the European Parliament which effectively killed the Spitzenkandidat system and handed power back to national capitals—the exact opposite trend of what would be needed for a “geopolitical Commission.”

Von der Leyen Wobbles

This year, the EU has witnessed an embarrassing unravelling of von der Leyen’s claims to geopolitical relevance which were perhaps an inevitable byproduct of that fateful summit in 2019 when Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reasserted the power of national capitals.

First, von der Leyen made a geopolitically naïve error by referencing Article 16 of the Irish Protocol—an exemption clause to the carefully worked out settlement that allowed a Brexit divorce without imposing a land border across the island of Ireland—in legislation introducing the possibility of EU vaccine export restrictions.

For the unidentified civil servant who made the error (rumored to be a member of von der Leyen’s German inner circle), it may have seemed a logical solution. The Commission needed to make sure that doses made in the EU and promised to the EU were not being exported to the United Kingdom, as AstraZeneca appears to have done in early January. The new “halfway house” status of Northern Ireland after January 1, being both part of the EU customs union and part of the UK, means it is now an Achilles heel for any EU trade border measure. But it appears that the geopolitical implications of closing that chink in the EU’s border armor were not considered, with the Commission not even consulting the British and Irish governments before putting out the text. The Commission fixed the error within hours and Article 16 was never actually triggered because the text never made it into the EU’s official journal. But the damage had been done.

Then, one week later, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell walked into an embarrassing fiasco in Moscow, being publicly humiliated standing next to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov as he insulted the EU, with Russian pro-democracy protestors being brutally beaten in the same city. The spectacle was enough for 50 members of the European Parliament to call on Borrell to resign.

These two embarrassments, coupled with a vaccination roll-out slower than in the UK and US (though faster than most developed countries) and an ongoing inability for the EU to stop the dismantling of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, has prompted the renewal of an all-too-familiar narrative in the Anglo-American media: an EU facing “the most serious crisis in its history.” This, of course, is an absurd exaggeration—particularly given the euro crisis a decade ago. But it’s not an exaggeration to say the EU seems to be failing to meet the expectations it set itself to transform into a more geopolitically powerful entity.

Weak Tools

The problem is that while leaders like Macron have tasked the Commission to make the EU more geopolitically strong, he and others still refuse to give the Commission the tools that would make it strong. For the last decade, the European Council has consistently opposed measures that would strengthen the Commission, because it would mean diluting the power of national governments. And they have purposefully put weak people into positions of power in Brussels, then expressed surprise when the outcomes were weak.

The European Constitution, which later evolved into the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, envisioned a new President of the Council position that would be the voice for the EU on the world stage, along with a new High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Big names were tossed around as to who could be the first holders of these offices, such as Tony Blair. But when it came time to choose in 2009, EU national leaders went out of their way to find the most obscure, low-key people they could find: the mild-mannered Haiku-writing former Belgian prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy, and the bumbling unknown British Baroness Catherine Ashton. Ashton in particular set the expectations for High Representative position extremely low with her notorious mishaps.

The next two holders of the offices from 2014 to 2019 were a bit better but still not remarkable politicians. The choice of von der Leyen and Borrell in 2019 seemed again purposefully designed to choose people who would not be able to challenge the power of national leaders. Macron refused to consider the Spitzenkandidat of his own political group, the talented and politically astute Margrethe Vestager, simply because he did not want to validate the Spitzenkandidat process which he believed took away the Council’s right to appoint the Commission president. The Socialists & Democrats’ Spitzenkandidat, the equally talented Frans Timmermans, was refused by the EU’s illiberal leaders in Hungary and Poland because he had gone after them on the rule of law. The EU ended up with von der Leyen as a compromise choice who would as a result be beholden to all these national leaders. This includes Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—without whose party she could not have survived her confirmation vote in the European Parliament.

The EU was built on an intergovernmental model, and the natural instinct of national leaders has been to keep it that way. But the EU can only be geopolitically strong if it can speak with a single voice on the world stage. Every suggestion to enable a stronger, more unified voice, such as ending the requirement for unanimity voting for foreign policy issues in the Council or combining the two EU presidents (Council and Commission) into one position, has been shot down by national leaders.

This is how Europe ended up with the Borrell spectacle in Moscow. There was no unanimous support for him to call off the planned trip, nor was there unanimous support for him to take a strong line. The High Representative, no matter who holds the position, is always left with only lowest common denominator EU foreign policy. The unanimity requirement was in fully absurd display last year when Cyprus vetoed sanctions against Belarus for its fraudulent election, saying it would only release its veto if the EU agreed to sanction Turkey for its oil and gas exploration in Cypriot waters.

An Adequate President

Likewise, national governments have for many years refused to give the Commission any more powers over public health. The Commission has done its best to coordinate on an issue that is normally not part of its competence, and as thanks it has gotten national leaders, particularly in Germany during an election year, happy to nationalize success and Europeanize failure. And it is that German political and media pressure that seemed to have motivated von der Leyen’s flailing response these past two months. Never mind that the biggest problems in European vaccine rollouts have been national logistics problems and countries like Germany that aren’t even using all the vaccine doses they’ve been supplied by the EU. National politicians are only too happy to play the Brussels blame game when it suits them.

Von der Leyen and Borrell are not exceptional politicians, but nor are they disasters. It is precisely their unexceptionalism that is the reason why they were chosen for their positions. National governments prefer to appoint weak people and then give them weak tools to work with, rather than face the risk of having a president in Brussels like Jacques Delors again, challenging national power. Von der Leyen is a perfectly adequate Commission president and before the Article 16 mistake she had not made any major errors. But it will take much more than an adequate leader to transform the EU into a geopolitical power.

EU national leaders are all well aware of the need for Europe to speak with one voice if it ever wants to be taken seriously on the global stage. But their natural instinct to preserve their own power gets in the way of achieving this goal. The Conference on the Future of Europe, the brainchild of Macron, should hopefully be getting underway this year. The main objective of this “constitutional convention” exercise should be to force national leaders to put their money where their mouth is. If they really want a geopolitical EU, then they need to be willing to allow for a powerful Commission, even if that means diluting their own power.

Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Brussels covering European politics for France24.

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