Ursula von der Leyen, the German defense minister nominated to become the next president of the European Union’s executive branch, is holding a whirlwind of meetings this week with the political groups in the European Parliament. They will decide in two weeks whether to confirm her.
One of the most important meetings will be with the European Green Party, which could possibly sink her nomination over concerns about her stance on climate change.
Von der Leyen’s nomination last week was steeped in acrimony, coming after 45 hours of intense negotiations between the EU’s 28 national leaders. The heart of the controversy was whether the 28 leaders would honor the spitzenkandidat system, in which the pan-European political groups had put forward candidates for Commission President ahead of May’s European Parliament election. The idea was that the parliament would only confirm one of these lead candidates – whoever could command a majority in the parliament.
But the 28 national leaders have never been a fan of this system since it was used for the first time in 2014 to choose current President Jean-Claude Juncker. By choosing Von der Leyen, who wasn’t a candidate in the election, they have thrown down the gauntlet to the European Parliament, daring them to make good on their threat of not confirming any non-spitzenkandidat.
Von der Leyen is from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which counts leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Ireland’s Leo Varadkar as members. The EPP is the largest group in the parliament, and they are likely to vote to confirm Von der Leyen (even if some members are upset about the spitzenkandidat system being abandoned). The Liberals, the third-largest group in the Parliament, are also likely to vote yes because they had one of their own, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, appointed to a different top job – President of the European Council.
But she needs a majority to vote for her in the parliament, and that will require at least three political groups to support her.
There will be trouble for Von der Leyen on the left side of the chamber. The centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D), the second-largest group in the Parliament, is furious that their group picked up no new top jobs in the horse-trading. The far-left GUE group and the Greens are sceptical of Von der Leyen because of her conservative positions. Together with the inevitable ‘no’ votes of the eurosceptic members of parliament, they could sink her nomination.
To spare her, the left is going to ask for some major concessions. One of these is likely to be some guarantees on climate change.
The change in guard comes at a time when EU countries are debating whether to adopt a plan put forward by the outgoing Commission to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The debate over whether to endorse the target has been particularly intense in Germany. But Von der Leyen has been silent on the issue.
Von der Leyen has not engaged very much with the issue of climate change, but that may be just because her government positions have not been involved with it. Before becoming defense minister she served as a labor minister and a family minister.
But she has also been the deputy leader of Merkel’s CDU party for many years, and during this time she noticeably did not get involved in the country’s ongoing debates over climate change and phasing out coal. The Greens will likely demand that Von der Leyen make firm statements and commitments on fighting climate change in order to confirm her.
They don’t just want platitudes, they want promises.
The Greens are in a strong position, winning a record number of seats in recent German elections. They are equal to Merkel’s conservatives in the latest public polling in Germany. The Greens more than doubled their numbers in May’s European Parliament election.
The Greens have started out hostile. Ska Keller, their leader in the European Parliament who was a spitzenkandidat for the group in May’s election, said last week that there is “no reason” why the Greens should confirm Von der Leyen.
But Von der Leyen has made some vague statements saying that climate change should be a political priority. After her CDU party did poorly in May’s European Parliament election while the Greens did very well, she said part of the reason was that the CDU had failed to “set clear priorities” on climate. She said that climate change is “a rightfully important – if not the most important – issue we as Europeans have to deal with”.
She has also been supportive of Germany’s Energiewende policy of increasing renewable energy. But at the same time, she strongly supported Angela Merkel’s decision in 2011 to phase out nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. That decision has led to an increased burning of coal in the country, and energy analysts say it has thrown Germany off its emissions reduction track.
Other top jobs
The Greens may have more reason to be hopeful with a different top job that also needs the parlaiment’s confirmation. Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell has been nominated to be the EU’s next High Representative for Foreign Affairs. His Socialist Spanish government led by Pedro Sanchez has been very active on climate change issues.
Green groups have reacted positively to the news of Borrell’s appointment. Spain’s Energy Minister Teresa Ribera hailed the appointment, saying it will put climate at the forefront of EU diplomacy “at a key moment when major global issues require a strong and constructive EU”.
However even if they are confirmed, Von der Leyen and Borrell will not start their jobs until October at the earliest, which will be after a critical UN climate summit in New York in September.
Following next week’s vote to confirm the Commission President, the Parliament will vote again in October to confirm or reject the new college of 28 EU commissioners as a whole. That vote will only come after intensive confirmation hearings in September – a process in which the Parliament usually demands the scalp of at least one of the commissioners, who are nominated by national governments.