Von der Leyen acknowledges bitterness over spitzenkandidat demise

Europe Letter: European Commission president hopes to give MEPs new powers

A clearly relieved Ursula von der Leyen was adamant after her election as European Commission president that, as the German expression has it, "a majority is a majority" – so that's where it comes from – and insisted that she would of course not be resubmitting her name for a new mandate when the UK MEPs, who may have secured her victory, leave the European Parliament.

The nine-vote margin on the required absolute majority of MEPs of 374 looks narrow enough, although the 327 votes against her provides a more realistic measure of the cushion she has. She explained the defections from the Socialists and Democrats with an acknowledgment of the bitterness which she says she understands at leaders’ rejection of the parliament’s spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, system.

That's the process that was supposed to have seen EU leaders back the parliament nominee of the party achieving highest support in the European elections; both the parliament's lead candidates, Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, had been sidelined in von der Leyen's favour.

The theme of mending bridges with MEPs, however, was very much part of her pitch to them this week. She promised to be their voice in the commission. And she promised to broker talks with leaders on fixing their spitzenkandidat system by the time of the next election in 2024. A promise that, given the circumstances of her own ascent, many regarded as a “bit rich”.


She promised much more regular dialogue between the commission and MEPs, praising Michel Barnier’s work during the Brexit talks. And she strongly endorsed Emmanuel Macron’s idea, backed by his Renew Europe group, of a popular “conference on the future of Europe” from 2020 for consultations on EU reform involving young people and civil society

“I want Europeans to build the future of our union. They should play a leading and active part in setting our priorities and our level of ambition,” she says in her political guidelines, a broad outline of her commission’s work programme. She says she will seek to implement the conference’s recommendations and says she is open to treaty changes, a suggestion that will not go down well in Dublin.

Commission agenda

But perhaps her most radical initiative, with most significant potential impact, was her promise to allow the parliament a right of initiative, a promise to require the commission to legislate for majority proposals from MEPs. Great, said one Renew MEP, Fredrick Federley of Sweden, we have this languishing proposal on animal welfare and will reactivate it immediately. Von der Leyen may find her inbox overflowing.

Unlike some of her other proposals, she does have the power to order the commission agenda.

For many years MEPs have complained about their inability to introduce legislation of their own, their “co-decision” role confined to ratifying and amending laws introduced by the commission and backed by the Council of Ministers.

The commission’s “sole right of initiative” is one of the distinctive features of the EU’s political architecture and which, MEPs say, confines them to a role of half a parliament. Bolstering the parliament’s role and status in the eyes of voters requires, they say, that they get full powers.

It is a right that has also been jealously eyed by some ministers in the council who resent the fact that all proposals before them for voting, amended or unamended, ultimately require commission approval. And if MEPs get a right of initiative, why not the council?

Collective interest

But the "sole right" is an important element of the union's institutional balance, a feature designed by founder Jean Monet to provide a counterbalance to the large states in the interests of the collective interest of the union, and ultimately of the small states which see the commission as their guarantor.

Should the large states be allowed to introduce legislation that favoured their interests, smaller states fear the emergence of a “directoire” running the union in which they would be sidelined. The sole right of initiative is thus a crucial condition of what political scientists call the “consent to be governed”, the acceptability of majority rule to small and large states alike.

It represents an important equilibrium that she may disturb at her peril – in private von der Leyen admits that her ideas in this regard do not have support in the commission.

Von der Leyen also spoke of her desire to "move towards full co-decision power for the European Parliament and away from unanimity for climate, energy, social and taxation policies". The same for certain foreign policy decisions, echoing speeches by outgoing commission president Jean Claude Juncker.

The decision in these matters will not be hers but that of the European Council, and the prospect, particularly on taxation – Dublin is here the bulwark against change – and foreign policy is far from likely.

But despite her emergence from the process through the squashing of their spitzenkandidat system, MEPs have in von der Leyen an important ally who identifies with them to a greater degree than many of her predecessors.