Saturday, June 22, 2024

Michel: we’ve ‘paid the bill’ for von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical’ commission

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EU in-fighting is heating up ahead of the European elections — with official internal documents slamming the “geopolitical commission” of EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and making her re-election anything but foregranted.

Von der Leyen’s self-proclaimed 2019 geopolitical commission pushed her beyond her role as the head of the EU executive, prompting concerns among national leaders about impartiality and politicisation of the institution and casting doubt on her suitability for the job.

“I am not certain what we need is a political commission. What we need for sure is a political union. There is a difference,” EU Council president Charles Michel told a group of journalists in Brussels on Monday (3 June)

This so-called geopolitical commission has been seen “as a way for the commission to be less impartial,” Michel explained, noting that there is a need for an “impartial commission” when it comes to, for example, foreign affairs — where the EU executive doesn’t have competences

Von der Leyen’s leadership on the pandemic and Ukraine war has gained respect, even from socialist-led nations, such as Spain.

But her handling of the war in Gaza is likely her biggest controversy.

Michel told journalists the initial position of the commission was “politicised” and “not representative” of member states’ position.

“We paid the bill,” he also said, referring to the damage to the EU’s image in the region and regretting when the commission made statements “without any legitimacy”.

These concerns have been reflected in an internal paper which sums up discussions between the EU council chief and EU leaders about the next strategic agenda, which indicates the need for the role and competencies of each institution to be “better respected”.

“The concepts of a ‘political’ or even ‘geopolitical’ commission raised mixed concerns, from implications on impartiality to institutional imbalance,” according to the paper, seen by EUobserver.

It also adds that EU leaders have expressed “strong reservations” against what is seen as “the politicisation” of rule of law conditionality — used to block EU money over rule of law concerns in countries like Hungary.

As this strategy has made her more focused on external relations, additional concerns about von der Leyen’s second term also arise from her perceived neglection towards internal economic affairs and enforcement of EU legislation.

The EU Commission has launched fewer infringement procedures than it did in the past. “For reasons that I don’t know, there is less interest … this is regrettable [and] it is a mistake,” Michel said. 

‘Difficult’ top jobs talks

When discussions resurface in Brussels about the institutions’ top jobs, the most attention is given to the European Commission presidency — because it is considered the most powerful position in terms of public visibility, legislative authority, and budgetary weight.

But Michel, who will lead top jobs talks during an informal dinner planned for mid-June and the upcoming European Council, will himself also be replaced in the reshuffle of EU top positions.

“I am not the only one who thinks that it will not be easy,” he said, describing decisions as “complex” as proven after the last European elections. 

Following the last 2019 European elections, EU leaders appointed von der Leyen from Angela Merkel’s defence ministry in Berlin — using their treaty powers and completely bypassing the Spitzenkandidaten process.

Now von der Leyen, the incumbent German conservative, is the lead candidate for the European People’s Party (EPP) which is expected to remain the largest party after the weekend elections. But other names are already circulating, notably that of Italian technocrat and former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi

Despite the result of the European Parliament elections, Michel noted that the decision about who becomes commission president is ultimately in the hands of the EU heads of state of government.

While some EU leaders view the Spitzenkandidaten system — which has led von der Leyen to campaign across Europe from Madrid to Warsaw — as conflicting with the principle of the commission’s independence outlined in the treaties,  others favour this process. 

“This is why it’s a complex task,” said Michel

“[But] it is our duty to make a decision by the end of June,” he also said. 

July vote?

If EU leaders announce their top job nominations by the end of June, MEPs will be able to vote on the EU Commission chief during the plenary session in July. 

However, concerns about von der Leyen’s nomination include doubts about whether she will have enough support from MEPs, especially after Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Renew Europe liberals, and Green MEPs threatened to withdraw their support.

This comes as von der Leyen has faced criticism for cosying up with Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni‘s Brothers of Italy party, which is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.

Before the official dinner of EU leaders on 17 June and the European Council later in June, talks about top jobs will also take place during the meeting of the G7 in Italy and the Ukraine Peace Conference in Switerzland.

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