Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
Well she did it. Just. Nine votes saved the EU from a full-blown institutional crisis and any number of spoilt summer holidays. The fact that Ursula von der Leyen only limped over the finishing line thanks to votes from Polish Law & Justice, Orban’s Fidesz and Italian 5-Star may come back to haunt her, particularly if the suspicions of secret concessions are backed up. Did she make a Faustian pact with the Poles on the long term budget or with the Italians on the next Competition Commissioner? Have the V4 eastern bloc, slayers of Timmermans and Weber, had the last laugh despite having no top jobs to show for it? They in turn accused her of pitching only to the left in her speech on Tuesday, backed up by the decision of the Socialist group to lend her their official support. Her rapid conversion to eco-warrior, with a European Green Deal the centre piece of her agenda for change, has certainly raised eye-brows. Who is the real Ursula von der Leyen? Master strategist who came back from the dead with an ambitious set of policies or a fly-by-night who says whatever her current audience wants to hear?
The Greens certainly remain sceptical, despite many of their key priorities figuring in her programme. Chris Davies, one of the Renew Europe negotiators in the parliament’s cross-party steering group, gave her his support because she had “done a copy & paste job on their demands for CO2 reduction”. The 2030 emissions reduction target of 55% has certainly become the litmus test of climate ambition and she has moved remarkably quickly from the long-standing EPP position of 45% to “moving towards 55% in a responsible way”. Her detractors claim that she is counting on the member states to row back on this ambition. Sophie in t’Veld asked if she would be the lap dog of the Council or the Pit Bull she wanted her to be? To be honest, she comes across more as the faithful Labrador wanting to please everyone with a wag of her tail. Her task now is to form a Commission that can command the support of the House. The narrowness of the vote, and the fact 327 MEPs opted to vote against her rather than just abstain, points to trouble ahead. The hearings in October will provide another opportunity for MEPs frustrated with the process to vent their anger and if she is seen to back down on her many promises, particularly on a gender-neutral Commission, the vote on the whole College pencilled in for the end of October could be another close one.
The Strasbourg corridors, already haunted by the 27 “phantom MEPs” waiting for the Brits to leave before they can take their seats, have been joined by two phantom Commissioners left in limbo before taking up their jobs. Estonia’s Kadri Simson and Romania’s Ioan Mircea Pascu were nominated to replace colleagues who had taken up their seats as MEPs, much to the annoyance of Jean-Claude Juncker who argued there was no work for them. He has yet to assign them a portfolio and their hearings have now been postponed until September, meaning they will be in office for only six weeks. The member states were also clearly not listening to von der Leyen’s plea for female candidates. By the end of the week, Greece and Slovenia had come forward with their nominees – both men- bringing the total of confirmed Commissioners to 10 men and 5 women. Maybe the Brits will help her out – I wonder if there is a high-profile, female candidate who will be out of a job next week who Boris could put forward as Trade Commissioner?