Will the EU spin out of control or into cohesion in 2020?
With its collection of councils, clubs and commissions, the EU is like an unruly family, but Ursula von der Leyen is a good mom
Centrifugal or centripetal — which force will prevail in the EU in 2020? A lot suggests it’ll be the former, with the EU drifting apart. Its third-biggest member state is preparing to exit. Populists are railing against Brussels and want their “sovereignty” back. Conservatives in the north balk at deeper integration of the eurozone.
One woman who wants to nudge the EU in the opposite direction is Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission. The EU needs “a centripetal force, coming again and again as the uniter”, she once told me, when she was still defence minister of Germany.
She stretched that point into an extended metaphor. A mother of seven, she has almost super-humanly balanced her career and her sprawling, often unruly family. The EU is like such a family, she told me. It’s not a nation, and therefore won’t ever have one “leader”, but it shares a common destiny, even if it’s always at risk of being pulled apart. That’s why it needs a uniter. A mom, basically.
Von der Leyen, who is considered a feminist in her party, the Christian Democratic Union, wears the mom label proudly. In that, as in other respects, she seems to have taken a page out of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s book. For years, Von der Leyen was rumoured to be interested in succeeding Merkel. More plausibly, she was simply taking notes: Merkel, during much of her 14-year reign, was known to Germans as “mutti.”
The similarity is one of style, not substance. Merkel, though capable at managing international crises, has never expressed a bold policy vision. Von der Leyen, by contrast, has already outlined several big goals for the EU. She wants to lead a “geopolitical commission” that can stand up to the US and China. She’s determined to give Europe a digital upgrade and migration reform. Above all, she promises a “European green deal” to make the whole union carbon neutral by 2050.
She can only announce such visions, however, not execute them. That’s because she has a surprisingly fluid role, one that’s badly understood outside of Brussels. The commission is often called the EU’s executive. But it’s less like a government and more like a civil service that also participates in ambassadorial rites.
There’s the Council of the EU, in which ministers of member states co-legislate with the commission. And there’s the European Council, in which national leaders gather, club-like, to set overall policy direction and hammer out compromises
Running it is hard enough, because it consists of a “college” of 26 other commissioners who view their portfolios as personal fiefs. Fitting it into the EU’s overall institutional architecture is even harder.
First, there’s the European parliament, which Von der Leyen got off to a bad start with because of the way she got her job. She was chosen by EU leaders in several rounds of back-room horse trading after French President Emmanuel Macron dropped her name. Parliament was so miffed at being sidelined, it confirmed Von der Leyen only by a nail-biting nine votes, then rejected three candidates for her commission, delaying its inauguration by a month.
Then there’s the Council of the EU, in which ministers of member states co-legislate with the commission. And there’s the European Council, in which national leaders gather, club-like, to set overall policy direction and hammer out compromises. (To make the confusion sublime, there’s also a Council of Europe, which has nothing to do with the EU at all.)
The European Council is, in effect, a collective EU presidency. Besides the 28 (soon 27) leaders, it also includes Von der Leyen and the body’s own president, currently Charles Michel, a former Belgian prime minister. One problem in recent years was that Von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Michel’s, Donald Tusk, didn’t get along. That impeded cooperation between their institutions.
Underneath such rivalries hums a constant din of general bickering — within the parliament, among national leaders, and between the institutions. The cast ranges from bone-dry eurocrats to wanton gadflies and flamboyant prima donnas. The relationship currently being watched is that between the “Jupiterian” Macron and the matter-of-fact pastor’s daughter Merkel. Brussels really is like an unruly family.
One European leader who has excelled in this environment is Merkel. Over the years, she perfected the art of taking steam out of the blustering of other leaders. She doesn’t rise to provocations and sits out tantrums before gently allowing even unreasonable interlocutors to climb down from their trees. She has been a stabilising presence.
Von der Leyen has served in three of Merkel’s cabinets (as minister of families, labour and defence). Both women grasp intuitively that female leaders have no need to arm-wrestle with the alpha males, either metaphorically or literally, as Macron did with US President Donald Trump. As any mom knows, what matters is that everybody eventually sits properly at the table.
If anybody can hold the EU together, then, it may well be Von der Leyen. Born in Brussels as daughter of a German politician who was then helping negotiate the Treaty of Rome, the foundation of what is today the EU, she’s fluent in French and English and has the “ever closer union” in her blood.
She also knows that holding families and unions together is in large part about atmospherics. That time I came to interview her — it was in December — she cut me off, then left and came back with a lighter. She lit up a candle on the Advent wreath between us. “There,” she said. Then she exhaled, smiled and talked politics.
• Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board.