Atlas Partners’ resident Brexiteer Sophia Stileman gives us her take on the new European Commission President, and what she means for the UK’s relationship with the EU.
Recently it was confirmed that Ursula von der Leyen had been elected to the top job of EU Commission President. She was selected from a secret ballot and won a narrow majority of votes from MEPs, standing unopposed. Another triumph for EU transparency. But where did her journey start, and what does she represent for the EU?
From Family Affairs to the Ministry of Defence
Von der Leyen’s entry into the German Government came when she served in Merkel’s first administration as Minister for Family Affairs. Both in this role, and later as Labour Minister, she made significant and, in my view, very positive reforms. Her introduction of parental allowances for fathers, improvements to access to child-care, as well as campaigns for a statutory quota for women on company boards were all bold moves consideringthe opposition that she faced from the more conservative CDU members.
Her good work earned her a promotion and since 2013 she has been German Defence Minister. However, her time in this role has seen her become deeply unpopular in her home country, with allegations of mismanagement and overspending already seeing her dubbed ‘the Chris Grayling of German politics’.
And now, she has been welcomed into by far her most prestigious role yet: The President of the European Commission.
The implications for Leave
Her election will no doubt have a significant impact on the UK’s relationship with the EU. My concerns with this election have been mostly centred on the President-elect’s intentions to reform the undemocratic aspects of the Union. In the case of Ms von der Leyen, I’m not so hopeful.
Quite the opposite, in fact: I can see her strengthening the argument for our exit. Everything about her election –from running unopposed to her federalist policy priorities– showcases the key reasons why the Union is so often criticised. So why is this?
For the first time in its history, the EU abandoned spitzenkandidaten, the convention that a President will be sourced from the majority party winning the European elections. It’s regarded rightly as a way to ensure that the President represents the majority of elected MEPs sitting in the Parliament and is often cited in arguments for the representative value of the Union as a whole. Ms von der Leyen’s success embodies a clear break away from this tradition. The largest Party in the EU Parliament is the EPP (European People’s Party) for which Manfred Weber was the candidate. Von der Leyen’s CDU Party only gained 29 seats. The same number, I might add, as the Brexit Party.
Given the prominent role that fears over the erosion of national democracy within the EU played in why 17.4 million ticked the ‘Leave’ box in 2016, one might assume the next Commission President would at least appear to want to address this. But this doesn’t seem to factor in Ursula’s agenda, or those who selected her to stand.
The United States (of Europe)
She has described herself as a supporter of a “United States of Europe”, which includes the rumoured establishment of a European army, something laughed off by officials for years until now. She also controversially wants to end national vetoes in energy, climate, and most importantly foreign policy decisions. Plans to reduce corporate tax competition within the European bloc by restricting the freedom of member states to determine their own rates also featured in her election proposals. These are areas that in my view should be left down to the nation state to preside over.
My own conclusion is that the EU has no intention of reforming. It clearly hasn’t taken on board the UK’s (and many other states’) worries over its democratic processes and growing political reach. The oft-cited optimists’ argument of ‘reform from within’ is looking more tired than ever before, and it’s time we accept it’s not happening any time soon.