Ursula von der Leyen makes presence felt courting MEPs

Europe Letter: European Commission president-in-waiting sees no change in policy on backstop

Just to get the important local news out of the way first.

Asked for the first time about Brexit and the backstop, European Commission president-in-waiting Ursula von der Leyen made clear to journalists that she sees no change in commission policy, notably on the backstop:

“I think the backstop is of utmost importance,” she said, “and we absolutely know how crucial this non-existent border for you is, and therefore having the backstop in the Brexit deal is precious, important and has to be defended.”

Continuity. Dublin will be happy. And she will meet Michel Barnier next week, presumably to confirm that she intends to keep him on in the Brexit chief negotiator role.


VDL, as she is known here by one and all – very useful for squeezing out short headlines – is in town doing the rounds, pressing the flesh and schmoozing MEPs and their groups to secure her vote in the European Parliament next Wednesday.

The commission has given her an office in the Charlemagne building, appropriately between the council building and the commission's Berlaymont, and a temporary "transition" staff of eight to manage her tight schedule. Her team is led by her chief of staff in the German defence ministry, Björn Seibert, and her spokesman Jens Flosdorff, both on leave from their German government duties until her appointment is confirmed.

She needs 375 votes for a majority in parliament, but is widely expected to get that with the support of the national leaders of the three mainstream parties, her own centre-right EPP (including Fine Gael), the somewhat disgruntled socialists of the S&D, and the ex-Liberals of Renew Europe (to which Fianna Fáil is affiliated).

That should be enough, comfortably, but the German Social Democrats are not happy at the scuppering of the socialist candidate Frans Timmermans, and Renew Europe will also be looking for a price.

Corporation tax

When she met the latter yesterday, to the discomfort of Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher she made a strong case for a European army and for common EU corporate taxation. Both issues went down well with most of the rest of the group, but he welcomed the strong support she gave to the backstop and the EU's Brexit position.

In the hope of gaining a sympathetic ear in the new commission for their policies, the newly invigorated Greens may also join the voting majority, and one of their leaders, Belgian Philippe Lambert, is being tipped for a commission post – a nomination from the Belgian government should not be a problem. It will be a significant first for the Greens.

VDL's green compatriot, Green co-leader Ska Keller, described her as "a very able politician" but added that "that's not enough".  There is a price. The party has a long agenda including green taxes that it believes the new commission will push.

VDL approvingly ticked several of the group’s boxes in a short address to the press last night. She insisted that facing up to climate change will be a key priority for the new commission, that meeting the 2050 emission neutrality targets is quite possible, as is reconciling the challenge with maintaining economic growth.

Minimum wage

She made a point of expressing understanding that some member states are not starting from the same point and promised cash from the EU budget.

That was a nod to Poland, whose ruling Law and Justice party is in the Eurosceptic conservative group ECR, which is also considering backing her. In part this is down to her tough position on Russia, and in part the hope that the ECR will then be looked on more favourably in the distribution of key committee posts, in an acknowledgment that it is fundamentally different from the populists.

A solid majority in the parliament would be more than 400. Although party discipline is looser here than in national parliaments, most of the groups will not want to break ranks with national party leaders.

But MEPs’ desire for revenge for the ditching by the leaders at the recent summit latter of their beloved spitzenkandidat – lead candidate – system will not go away; we can expect fiery hearings when the new commissioners come to the parliament for questioning.

Among VDL’s other promises were a commitment to a minimum wage in every member state, a call that will be strongly backed by the socialists.

And in a significant concession to MEPs, noting their disappointment over the nomination system, she offered a pledge that they would be heard. If, by a clear majority, parliament demands action on an issue, she says she will put it on the commission agenda, a significant erosion of the longstanding, and much resented by MEPs, commission “sole right of initiative”.

VDL is clearly no mean politician.