Ursula von der Leyen: The Green Wave President?

She has been nominated: after marathon negotiations over the EU’s top jobs, European heads of state have proposed Ursula von der Leyen as the next President of the European Commission. Now the Parliament must vote on whether to approve her appointment and getting the blessing of MEPs is still far from certain.

While Brussels debates the process of the nomination, especially the decision to cast aside the lead candidates chosen by the political groups in favour of a surprise nominee, environmental groups are warning that the election of the EU’s most powerful job cannot ignore people’s demand for a greener Europe.

“The European Council is obliged under the Lisbon Treaty to take into account the European Parliament elections when nominating a Commission President – including in this case the ‘green wave’ which is generally acknowledged to be a main outcome of the elections” said Jeremy Wates, EEB Secretary General. “We are yet to be persuaded by the green credentials of von der Leyen, and by her commitment to a sustainable Europe.”

Wates argues that regardless of who gets the presidency, the new Commission will need to deliver: “a Green New Deal that addresses citizens’ concerns and planetary needs, and puts sustainable development at the heart of all EU policies”.

The European elections saw the highest voter turnout in 20 years and significant gains for progressive causes, with environmental challenges and solutions occupying an unprecedented space in the political debate. However, the German defence minister comes with no track record on environment and sustainability, and with the Commission’s work programme still unclear, her commitment to protecting nature and the climate is untested.

Ester Asin, Director of the WWF European Policy Office was explicit on this point in a statement issued last week:

“Considering that climate and environment were key issues in the election campaign and top of voters’ concerns, it is disappointing that we have ended up with a candidate who could not during public debates present her vision for a sustainable Europe”.

A mandate for change

Environmental groups are not the only ones concerned about von der Leyen’s capacity to deliver the social and environmental justice citizens demand.

Yesterday night the Greens rejected her nomination after a live-streamed hearing at the European Parliament. “We did not hear any concrete proposal, be it on rule of law or on climate,” said the group’s co-president Ska Keller: “We have been elected on a mandate for change and we don’t see how change will be possible with this candidate.”

Von der Leyen is now holding discussions with all political families to convince the Parliament to back her appointment. With some socialists fiercely opposing her election, the support of Green MEPs was considered key for her to reach the absolute majority she needs to be elected.

Parliament could send EU heads of state back to the drawing board, leaving them with just one month to put forward a new candidate.

The political groups could also use their leverage to obtain concessions on policy priorities or personnel appointments, and delay the confirmation vote for weeks or even months, as that the current Commission remains in place until November.

Unwanted surprise

Von der Leyen’s nomination had sparked harsh reactions within the European Parliament, as MEPs claimed the decision of the Council bypassed the lead candidates (Spitzenkanditaten) put forward by the political families all along the electoral campaign, and called EU leader’s negotiation a ‘backroom horse-trade’.

European leader backed von der Leyen ahead of the EPP’s official nominee Manfred Weber, as well as socialist Frans Timmermans and liberal Margrethe Vestager, who have now both been proposed as Commission Vice-Presidents.

The Spitzencandidat system is based on the convention that a nominated ‘top candidate’ who could command a majority in the European Parliament should become the Commission President. It was introduced with the EU elections of 2014, when it worked out smoothly leading to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the EU’s executive.

Alongside von der Leyen, European leaders have choised the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel as new President of the European Council, the Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the French Christine Lagarde – currently leading the International Monetary Fund – as the President of the European Central Bank.

Defending the package and the legitimacy of the heads of state’s choice, European Council President Donald Tusk stressed that, for the first time, the EU achieved a perfect gender balance in the top positions. “Europe is not only talking about women, but it is also choosing women”, he told the Parliament plenary in Strasbourg last week.

On the other hand, while the candidates reflects a balance between men and women and between Conservative, Socialist and Liberal political families, it only includes Western European candidates, and it fails to reflect the increasing political relevance of the Greens, who were among the biggest winners of the EU elections.

For her part, von der Leyen tweeted last week that her priorities will be to “seek smart advice, listen to all parliamentary groups and together work out the best plan for the future of Europe.”

If the Parliamentary vote is confirmed for Wednesday next week, the candidate President still has a few days to reflect on, clarify a programme that addresses voters’ environmental concerns, and convince skeptical MEPs that she is the right person for the job.

Will she be up for the challenge?