The European Commission president has to be a failed politician who will be dazzled by the bodyguards, motorcades and photo ops with world leaders, but not really take the lead from the front.
When Ursula von der Leyen became European Commission president in December 2019, many journalists responded with vitriol over how such a German political lightweight could take the top job in Brussels. She literally had no success stories in Germany in previous ministerial positions and many Germans when hearing of her appointment reacted with “Ursula who?”.
And yet, with the exception of Jacques Delors, European Commission presidents are traditionally selected on the basis of them being underperformers – so that the real powers behind the throne (French and German leaders) can manipulate them at will and use them like putty in their palms. There is another argument also that in Brussels, where the EU institutions are run by aging freemasons, the choice of a political retard at the end of their careers is really about appeasing these old guys, who the system assures you never see or hear of, ever.
And so, by definition, the European Commission president has to be a failed politician who will be dazzled by the bodyguards, motorcades and photo ops with world leaders, but not really take the lead from the front. In this respect, by their own unwritten rules, VDL, as she is known by some cruel hacks in Brussels, is an absolute perfect Commission president as she ticks all the boxes – and being German as well gives her a halo as the best kept secret in Brussels is that the previous worry in the late 1990s that the project was really a Franco-German axis venture has now descended into really just Germany running the entire show.
However, Ursula is also at the apex of what many EU insiders worry could be a crisis which will only worsen in the coming months and kickstart a process whereby the EU implodes slowly and falls on its own sword.
She has single-handedly made a monumental dog’s breakfast of Brexit, allowing herself, her negotiator and the federalist bed-wetters in Brussels to indulge themselves in a racist, twisted and deluded campaign, pitching the UK as a new enemy which has to be taught a lesson. It massively backfired and even her most staunch supporters are admitting this as a major gaffe which is actually furthering the cause of other EU member states who might have been mulling leaving the bloc before, but now are even closer to considering it as a real alternative path.
But that’s not her tour de force of gob-smacking failures. In reality, Ursula is seen by many EU watchers as a real threat to the sustainability of the project, due to her spectacular mishandling of the corona virusrescue plan. Vaccines.
Some might argue that she wants to champion an EU vaccine plan which in itself was ill-conceived and a thinly veiled ruse to boost the bloc’s credibility, following an all-time low from Brexit. Indeed, many member states already were on the case and ordering their stocks of vaccines and really didn’t need to be slowed down by a half-baked plan which was a series of blunders and poor decisions from the off.
But now the EU and Ursula are in panic mode. Britain, ordering early stocks unhindered by EU foibles and Eurocrats’ gaffs, accelerated ahead with vaccine order and will have the entire population done by the end of summer, according to some reports.
In early February, the calamity of erroneous policy decisions shifted gear when Ursula did a U-turn on the Commission’s decision to try and block ‘exports’ of the vaccine to Britain via Northern Ireland. But there was more hilarious keystone cops moments to come when news quickly came of a raucous tantrum led by some MEPs, after it was revealed that the Commission’s aging foreign policy wonk, Josep Borrell – a man who literally makes a pile a chair look exciting – went to Russia on his knees to ask Putin for vaccines while apparently scolding Moscow on its human rights. Try and keep a straight face. Borrell pulled that off at least.
By contrast to the UK’s vaccine program, by midsummer, the EU’s own would have barely begun which is really what the panic we are now seeing – and will see increasingly in the Belgian capital – is all about.
How did the EU mess this up? And how does the author, who worked in Brussels for 11 years, know that there is real panic within the EU.
When the EU really starts to panic, it turns to its oldest and dearest friend, the suppliant, loyal and entirely subservient institution at its disposal, ready and waiting to serve its master: the press.
Ursula lost no time organising an interview with Le Monde explaining the situation and how she shouldn’t be judged until her term is up, in 2024. Typical EU chief response. “We’re not a democracy and I have another 4 years before I should face any scrutiny, so let me draw the rock star salary and enjoy the lifestyle which the job brings” really is what the message was.
The article of course was a message to Emmanuel Macron who is literally pulling his hair out with a political crisis of his own. He can no longer rely on the EU itself to boost his profile, when the institution looks more and more like a sour loser each day, burying itself in ineptitude, graft, nefarious PR stunts and scandal. The delay in vaccines is costing France and Macron’s popularity dearly. A recent study showed that his right-wing nemesis Marine Le Pen was neck and neck with the centrist wet President. When more French citizens see the dirty tricks the EU and France and playing against the UK and start to see the project in Brussels as a failing one, mired in corruption and led by a Commission president who appears lost on the stage of international politics, this will only mean one thing at the French ballot. More votes for the far right. And he knows it.
Ursula knows that her critics in Brussels and from leaders of EU countries who saw her as too inexperienced and lacking in élan, that she is walking a tight rope. In the coming weeks there will be more pressure on her as the big guns of the project like Macron, will find it harder to ignore the obvious. Not only is she part of the current crisis, but her staying in the job and resorting to shallow PR stunts are all feeding a frenzy right across the entire continent which will not only swell the ranks of the far right in France but in a number of other EU member states as well.
It is obvious what the EU needs to do. Or at least obvious to anyone who works in government on a national level. If this happened in the UK, France or Germany, the party which supported her as leader would seek her resignation to keep the sanctity of the organisation alive. A resignation creates a media distraction and shows the party faithful, the media and its critics that the overall project is not only serious, but also in touch with the needs and concerns of the electorate.
The EU model doesn’t think nor work like that though. The EU itself in Brussels is a consensus-driven model, supported by member states who buy into the idea that a non-democratic beast in the Belgian capital can be beneficial to a democratic one on a national level.
The last time an EU Commission president resigned was in 1999 when, in fact, the entire commission itself made up of 20 ‘commissioners’ were implicated in graft, often remembered for Edith Cresson’s dentist landing a fat EU contract on nothing relating to fillings and braces.
Jacques Santer lowered his head in a press conference and whimpered in his odd Luxembourger accent “I’m sorry”.
Ursula, needs to do the same to save the EU project, restore confidence quickly and divert this ocean liner from slamming into an iceberg from which it will never recover. This will only happen if member states take the initiative and signal to her that this is the right thing. Watch very closely how Merkel and Macron stand by her. Or not.