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Geopolitical Birth Pangs: The State of the European Union

Andrew Duff (European Policy Centre)

“We have seen the birth of a geopolitical Union”, she said. Ursula von der Leyen’s claim at the start of her annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament on 13 September was startling. How did she substantiate it?

She recorded achievements: supporting Ukraine, standing up to Russia, responding to an assertive China and “investing in partnerships”. “We now have a European Green Deal as the centrepiece of our economy and unmatched in ambition. We have set the path for the digital transition and become global pioneers in online rights. We have the historic NextGenerationEU – combining 800 billion euros of investment and reform.” The pandemic ushered in a Health Union, “helping to vaccinate an entire continent – and large parts of the world”. The EU has started on becoming “more independent in critical sectors, like energy, chips or raw materials”.

Von der Leyen’s Commission has certainly been busy, catching up for the time lost during Covid and reacting swiftly to the onrush of events. Although the President could hardly admit this, the real hallmark of her Commission has been pragmatism. If the Union is suddenly “geopolitical” the transformation has not been the result of grand strategy. The change has not come about according to a skilful blueprint. The Union has assumed more competences because the member states, left to their own devices, have been unable to cope with the challenges Europe faces. The pressing need for more European integration has been realised in practical terms without a concerted effort at constitutional reform.

The EU institutions, notably the Commission and the Court of Justice, have shown a greater capacity for autonomous action than anticipated. Despite losing one member state and facing rising internal divisions over the rule of law, the EU’s legislation has continued to multiply, its regulation has rocketed, and its budget soared.

The dynamism of the Commission has silenced the usual complaints about eurosclerosis. Von der Leyen herself has been very much at the centre of all this activity. By contrast, the star of the European Council and its President Charles Michel has waned. It is well known that relations between the two presidents is difficult: his absence from the State of the Union occasion in Strasbourg is telling. Member states continue to impose more demands on the Commission (some unrealisable) as their faith in the European Council declines.

New impetus needed

Look closer, moreover, and we find von der Leyen’s geopolitical Union no more than half-built. The Treaty of Lisbon, signed in 2007, looks dated. The decision-making capacity of the Council, in particular, is failing to cope with the demands made of EU governance. The powers of the EU in the field of foreign and security policy are lacking. The EU’s trade model is in a muddle, and its economic performance uncompetitive. The Commission’s proposals for a common immigration policy are hotly contested. The capital markets union remains stalled. There is no consensus on how to cope with the pressures for enlargement to Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkans.

Von der Leyen signalled she will take several new political initiatives. The most interesting one was the appointment of Mario Draghi to produce a report on the future of Europe’s competitiveness. Draghi is a federalist, committed to reaching the goal of fiscal union, along with the provision of a genuine joint safe asset to spur investment in European public goods. He recognises that more centralisation of executive authority on the Commission in Brussels requires treaty change. His report will not shy away from proposing a eurobond issued by a sovereign, geopolitical EU endowed with powers of direct taxation.

Enlargement, too, needs treaty change, as Emmanuel Macron is keen to point out. Von der Leyen has never taken a lead on constitutional matters, but towards the end of her speech in Strasbourg she recognised that the imperative of enlargement propels treaty change.

“This is why the Commission will start working on a series of pre-enlargement policy reviews to see how each area may need to be adapted to a larger Union. We will need to think about how our institutions would work – how the Parliament and the Commission would look. We need to discuss the future of our budget – in terms of what it finances, how it finances it, and how it is financed. And we need to understand how to ensure credible security commitments in a world where deterrence matters more than ever.”

The European Parliament, under the lead of Guy Verhofstadt, will vote its own package of treaty amendments in November. The central proposal is to modify the decision-making process for the passerelle clause (Article 48(7) TEU) so as to reduce the power of the national veto. The combination of Draghi and Verhofstadt, if sponsored by von der Leyen, promises deep democratic reform. Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova is charged to deliver the Commission’s institutional review to the Belgian presidency of the Council (January to June next year). The European Council under new leadership should then take things forward and call a Convention (Article 48(3) TEU).

Will she? Won’t she?

Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech was delivered self-confidently against the background of a credible track record. But one looked in vain for a clear signal about her own future intentions. Aged only 64 and seemingly as fit as a fiddle — and, as she told us, recently a grandmother — she may not yet have decided whether to stand for a second term as Commission President.

In truth, she does not need to declare her candidacy until the beginning of the campaign for the European Parliamentary elections that will be held from 6-9 June 2024. To declare too early would plunge von der Leyen into partisan campaigning — while declining to stand would render her a lame duck President. (Given the absence of transnational party lists there is no mileage in the concept of competing Spitzenkandidaten, promoted by EU political parties for the top job.) Von der Leyen faces no obvious challenger for the post. If she wants a second mandate, one presumes she will get it, faute de mieux.

The President of the Commission can be nominated by a qualified majority of the European Council — that is, 72% of its membership (20 out of 27 leaders) representing at least 65% of the EU population. Von der Leyen’s party affiliation of CDU/EPP will be no hindrance to a second term. Although the EPP is in a significant minority in the European Council, crucially, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is a social democrat, and his coalition partners from the FDP and the Greens have agreed to advance her candidacy. President Macron backs her too. Once nominated, she will need at least 361 votes In the European Parliament to get re-elected, being an absolute majority of the new House composed of 720 MEPs. According to Parliament’s rules of procedure, the vote is by secret ballot.

Von der Leyen knows very well she would need to improve on her score in July 2019 when she scraped into office by only nine votes (which included those of most of the rump British MEPs). This time she is assiduous in courting Liberal and centre-left MEPs precisely to avoid reliance on the hard right. Although the right looks to score well at the European elections in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria, von der Leyen should be confident of a centrist majority made up of MEPs from the EPP, S&D, Renew and Green groups. Her State of the Union speech of 13 September secured Ursula von der Leyen’s future career at the top of European politics — should she want it. Stripped of its inevitable hyperbole, her speech orientates the Union towards widening and deepening too.


Andrew Duff is a Senior Fellow of the European Policy Centre and a former MEP. @AndrewDuffEU

Image Credits: © European Union 2023 – Source : EP

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.