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This is how Europe got its new president. It was a difficult and controversial process.

The hard-fought battle will shape European politics for years to come.

- July 17, 2019

The European Parliament on Tuesday voted to confirm Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister and a longtime ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the next president of the European Commission. Her victory was both historic and controversial. It was historic above all because she will become the first female president of the European Union’s executive. But it was controversial because of how she was selected.

When leaders of the European Union’s 28 member states nominated von der Leyen earlier this month, she was thrust into the middle of a fight about how the E.U. should choose its president. The European Parliament asserted that its Pan-European “Europarties” should put forward candidates and that voters should choose between them in the European Parliament elections. But in the end these candidates were pushed aside in favor of von der Leyen — an unexpected nominee agreed on by national leaders in the European Council as part of a negotiated package deal of top E.U. jobs.

It might be tempting to dismiss the conflict as petty squabbling between E.U. institutions, but that would be a mistake. The stakes in the fight were high and von der Leyen’s success — which marked a decisive victory for national governments and a humbling defeat for the European Parliament — may influence the development of E.U. democracy for years to come.

The Parliament’s 2014 coup

The battle was important because the method for selecting presidents of the European Commission changed in 2014. For most of the E.U.’s history, commission presidents were simply appointed by a consensus of national leaders. That sort of intergovernmental decision-making behind closed doors in the council had long been criticized by those who said that the E.U. suffered from a democratic deficit because it was run by unelected bureaucrats who were unaccountable to voters.

In 2014, the European Parliament launched a new process that it promised would democratize the E.U. Ahead of the European Parliament election, Europarties nominated candidates for the commission presidency (so-called Spitzenkandidaten) and asserted that the candidate of the party that won the most seats in the European Parliament election should become commission president. It was far from certain this move would succeed. Most governments rejected it as an illegitimate power grab. However, after the election, the Europarties in the parliament coalesced behind the candidate of the party that came out on top in the election — Jean-Claude Juncker of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) — and insisted that he become president. Ultimately, governments in the council relented and designated Juncker president — with only the British and Hungarian governments dissenting.

Fast forward five years and the parliament was determined to repeat and further entrench the Spitzenkandidaten process. Once again Europarties put forward Spitzenkandidaten — though the liberals partially dissented by insisting on putting forward a slate of potential candidates rather than just one. The process fell far short of a true Pan-European election campaign: Voter knowledge of the candidates and even of the Europarties themselves remained very low. Still, the campaigns were better organized and debates more widely publicized than five years ago, and defenders of the system claimed progress toward building Pan-European democracy.

Death of the Spitzenkandidaten system

So what went wrong with the Spitzenkandidaten process? Oddly, it was the EPP — which had long supported the system — that played the central role in killing it. First, the EPP put forward a highly controversial candidate who never had a realistic chance of gaining backing in the council or parliament. The EPP’s candidate, a German and leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, had for years played a central role in defending the regime of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary as it dismantled democracy and the rule of law. Not only was Weber’s candidacy compromised by his record as an autocrat enabler, he also had no experience in national government and thus was unlikely to win support in the council. Already by late June, the Liberals and Socialists in the European Parliament declared that they would not support Weber — dooming his prospects.

With their candidate having failed to pull together a majority coalition, the EPP faced a dilemma. If it wanted to save the Spitzenkandidaten process, it would have to back the candidate of one of the other major parties — the Socialists’ Frans Timmermans or the Liberals’ Margrethe Vestager — who might be able to pull together a majority coalition in the parliament. Alternatively it could abandon the Spitzenkandidaten process and demand that national leaders install as president some other EPP politician who had not been a candidate. In the end, the EPP chose the latter.

Merkel did make a brief effort to salvage the Spitzenkandidat principle when she threw her support behind a package deal on top E.U. jobs (the “Osaka Deal”) negotiated with French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez that would have seen Timmermans become president. But the overwhelming majority of EPP leaders in the council refused to support him. Conveniently for the EPP, the Visegrad 4 governments (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) and the Italian government under the influence of the far-right Lega party also opposed Timmermans because of the strong stand he had taken defending the rule of law as commission vice president. These governments were happy to claim credit for scuttling his candidacy, and the EPP was happy to let them take the blame.

On to von der Leyen

With the Spitzenkandidaten knocked out of contention, the council was free to go back to the drawing board and to nominate its own candidate. Apparently it was Macron who suggested Germany’s defense minister von der Leyen as a compromise. It was a clever choice to go with an EPP nominee and a German, as this would help the EPP to overcome the sting of having seen its candidate Weber rejected. That she would be the first woman to hold the commission presidency made her an even more attractive candidate.

Many in the European Parliament complained that the council had ignored their democratic experiment and gone back to the days of orchestrating backroom deals. In the end, however, enough of them capitulated for von der Leyen to eke out a narrow victory. She needed the votes of 374 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to win the required absolute majority, and surpassed that threshold by just nine votes. But the coalition von der Leyen relied on to win has cast a cloud over her victory.

Though she was officially backed by the leadership of three main Europarties in the parliament — her own EPP, the Socialists and the Liberals — many of their MEPs opposed her. Ironically, von der Leyen, who billed herself as a European federalist and principled democrat, ultimately needed the votes of MEPs from the far-right and increasingly authoritarian governing parties in Hungary and Poland to win office. Both governments are currently subject to disciplinary proceedings for violations of the E.U.’s core democratic values, yet both happily trumpet the role they played in electing von der Leyen. Supporters of European democracy will want her to demonstrate that she is not beholden to the autocratic regimes that helped elect her, and that she is willing to take a tough stand on defending the rule of law and democratic values in the E.U.

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R. Daniel Kelemen is professor of political science and law at Rutgers University. He is on Twitter at @rdanielkelemen.