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Von der Leyen’s Paper-Thin Election: Will She Keep her Promises?

Von der Leyen’s Paper-Thin Election: Will She Keep her Promises?

Giovanni Zaccaroni  (DCU Brexit Institute)

The election of the President of the European Commission is the topical moment of the EU’s political life. The new Commission, in the aftermath of the May 2019 European elections, is expected to start its mandate in November 2019, at an extremely delicate moment of European history. The populist and nationalist tide that was expected to take over the EU institutions did not prove itself up to the task of changing the direction of course of the EU.

The European Council’s choice

Brussels has however very few reasons to rejoice, as the Spitzenkandidat mechanism, the procedure by which the European Council would take into account the results of the European elections by proposing as President of the new European Commission the lead candidate of the European political party which received most votes – was dismantled by the heads of State and government in the European Council of the beginning of July 2019. The Spitzenkandidaten selected by the main European parties, among the others Manfred Weber for the EPP and Frans Timmermans of the S&D, vanished soon after the conclusion of the European elections. The name of Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Angela Merkel’s government and Minister of Defence, unknown to the general public outside Germany, emerged out as a compromise between the French-German axis and the Eastern European block (the Visegrádgroup), which had strongly opposed the nomination of a socialist or liberal candidate such as Timmermans or Margrethe Vestager.

The national political situation and its influence over the European vote

 Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid – among the others – come to this topical moment in very different situations. Although the European elections are rightfully supposed to reflect and take into account the European interests, it is difficult to deny the extent to which the appointment of the European Commission President is influenced by the national governments. Angela Merkel had to overcome internal criticism linked to the end of her last term as Federal Chancellor, coupled with pressing doubts on her physical health. To confirm her power and authority she proposed von der Leyen for the Presidency of the Commission. Emmanuel Macron’s party had been narrowly defeated by that of Marine Le Pen, but eventually prevailed: in exchange he secured the ECB chair for Christine Lagarde. Pedro Sanchez was in a slightly different positions, having emerged from the European and national elections as the winner and flag-bearer of the progressist movement in Europe: he obtained the promise of Mogherini’s chair, foreign policy chief, for Joseph Borrell. Giuseppe Conteis the only major national leader who did not manage to obtain a top job, a meaningful indication of the European isolation of the Italian political elite. The independent law professor who has been appointed in early 2018 as Italian Prime Minister has been struggling to resist the pressure coming from the Five Star Movement and the League (the main parties in the coalition that supports the Italian government) to enact high budget-spending social security measures, while Salvini (the leader of the League) is now in a difficult situation due to allegations of Russian funding to his electoral campaign.

The mechanism of nomination and appointment of the 2019 European Commission

The mechanism to appoint the President of the European Commission, according to Art. 17 of the TEU, goes through three main steps. In the first step, which took place in the beginning of July 2019, the European Council nominates an official candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission acting by qualified majority vote. In the second step the European Parliament elects, by an absolute majority of its own members  the President of the European Commission. In the third step, the President-elect of the Commission, in coordination with the Council, draws the list of member of the European Commission, who are subject to hearings by the Parliament, which votes on the Commission as a whole. At the end of this cumbersome process, it is the European Council that has again the final word, appointing the Commission as a whole by qualified majority vote.  Von der Leyen has been working hard to win the vote of the Parliament. However, this is only one piece in the puzzle of the appointment of the top job of the EU institutions.

The analysis of the vote and the challenges ahead

At the European Parliament plenary of 16 June 2019 von der Leyen won by secret ballot a majority of 383 votes, with 327 against, and 22 abstentions. The result is a 9 vote majority, which contrasts with the greater margin received by her predecessor, Jean Claude Juncker, who was elected with a majority of 422 votes in 2014. However, the size of her majority is comparable to that received by José Manuel Barroso in 2009 at the start of his second term (382 votes in favour, 219 against and 117 abstentions). Her nomination attracted the support of the majority of the European Parliament, thanks to the votes of the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe. However, protected by the secret vote, several MEPs deserted the indications received by the groups and voted against or abstained. This was notwithstanding the effort of the candidate to please the majority of the political groups: Von der Leyen presented herself to the Parliament with an ambitious set of promises and reforms for the European Union. The President in pectoreof the European Commission will however have a plethora of further tasks to fulfil. First of all, from an institutional point of view, she will have to put together a list of Commissioners.  Subsequently, she will face a number of substantive challenges including the reform of the Dublin system and of the economic governance of the European Union, which, to be effective, will require a Treaty amendment.

The elephant in the room, however, is Brexit: the new President of the European Commission will have to consent to the more than likely extension of the Brexit deadline. Von der Leyen has already spoken in favour of an extension of the deadline in her statement to the EP, thus prolonging the uncertainty that surrounds the fate of the UK in the EU, and raising issues for the internal functioning of the EU itself.


Eventually, the newly appointed President of the European Commission will have to accomplish an uneasy mission: to perform better than her predecessor, Jean Claude Juncker. A former Prime Minister and Chair of the Eurogroup, Juncker has, also for concerns on his health, struggled to maintain the equally ambitious promises made at the beginning of his mandate. However, the outcome of his term as President of the Commission is less negative than it seems at first sight. He was on the forefront of the debate on migration, he managed to implement the Juncker plan of leveraged investments and successfully managed the Brexit process. Most importantly, he tried to bring the European citizens closer to the functioning of the EU machinery. The inheritance he leaves to the next President of the European Commission, who will need to prove herself at the lead of the Berlaymont, is a heavier burden to carry than it seems.


Giovanni Zaccaroni is Research Fellow at the DCU Brexit Institute. He has a Ph.D. in EU law from the University of Bologna and Strabourg and an LL.M. in European Law from King’s College London.