Von der Leyen turns abundance of Irish concerns into democratic deficit

Europe Letter: Sinn Féin MEP was left addressing a chair as ‘madame president’

Criticisms of the European Commission as undemocratic are often crude, ignoring the balance of powers with EU national leaders and the European Parliament.

They can also falsely imply that the norm is a pretty direct kind of democracy in which voters pick the precise individuals to put in governing roles – not the case for taoisigh, or many European electoral systems.

The president of the commission and her cabinet are nominated by the 27 national leaders. They must then be scrutinised and confirmed by the European Parliament.

By convention, the commission president should be the "lead candidate" of the political group with the most MEPs. But national leaders overruled this in 2019. They discarded Manfred Weber, who campaigned as the face of Fine Gael's European People's Party, and proposing his party colleague Ursula von der Leyen instead. Her narrow approval by just nine votes reflected MEPs' reaction.


The European Parliament can fire the commission with a vote. It summons commission leaders and civil servants to interrogate on the back of this clout.

Nevertheless, to Irish MEPs the lack of opportunities to robustly question figures like von der Leyen can be a culture shock when their frame of reference is Leaders’ Questions.

Vaccine debate

This was apparent when the president visited the European Parliament for a debate on the EU’s vaccine strategy on Wednesday, the much-awaited first opportunity to put questions to her over the article 16 debacle in public.

Von der Leyen began the debate with an address in which she admitted the EU's approval of vaccines should have been faster, and that delivery expectations had been too optimistic. She briefly addressed the Irish concerns, admitting that "mistakes were made" without responding to specific questions put by MEPs in advance of the debate, on who had made the decision, how, and why.

Four Irish MEPs had a slot in the debate to ask her questions directly, one each from Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens.

Unfortunately, by the time the first Irish MEP had the chance to speak, von der Leyen had exited the chamber to give radio and television interviews. This left Sinn Féin’s Chris MacManus addressing an empty chair as “madame president”.

It was all the more regrettable because of what MacManus had to say.

With the chamber sadly empty of the MEPs who once represented Northern Ireland, he pointed out the risk of a "democratic deficit" when it comes to the rules that affect people's daily lives there.

The special arrangements for Northern Ireland have been designed to reconcile the Conservative and DUP insistence on a hard Brexit with the impossibility of a land border.

But as it has left the EU, its citizens have lost their elected representatives in the bloc.

Lacking ‘voice’

The arrangements will be managed through a joint EU-UK committee, and Stormont will have an opportunity to vote on the protocol after four years. But citizens have been left, in the words of the Queen's University professor Katy Hayward, lacking "voice".

MacManus called for “systemic engagement with all levels of citizens, communities and their elected representatives” in the North.

“We must find a way to ensure that EU decisions that directly affect nearly two million people in the North of Ireland, currently without their input, is addressed and resolved,” he told the empty chair.

As the Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly said later – when von der Leyen had returned to the chamber after an absence of almost an hour – the article 16 debacle “came about as there was no consultation with those who would be most affected”.

Many MEPs have been thinking in a similar vein. A joint letter from Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Green and Independents has called for structures of inclusion such as a delegation to Stormont, and a permanent Northern Ireland Assembly office within the European Parliament building.

Von der Leyen could start by listening and responding to such suggestions.

Regrettably on Wednesday, after all the MEPs had asked their questions, the commission president did not give them a response. Instead, during the debate her name was taken off the roster of speakers and replaced with that of her health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, who concluded the debate.

She therefore passed up the opportunity to address an error that has shaken a hard-won compromise on Northern Ireland, as well as the faith of many who had placed their trust in the EU. It’s unclear when the next chance will be, as von der Leyen has yet to hold a press conference on the affair.

Many challenges to the EU’s democratic accountability are based on ignorance. Not this one.