Sunday 25 August 2019

John Downing: 'First woman picked to head EU executive faces an uphill battle to get approval needed amid late 'arm twisting''


Needs 376 votes: German politician Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Needs 376 votes: German politician Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
John Downing

John Downing

Ursula von der Leyen - the first woman ever picked to head the EU Commission - has a date with fate at 5pm tomorrow. If she cannot get half the 751 members of the European Parliament to back her in a secret ballot, then she will not be confirmed to replace Jean-Claude Juncker.

Rejection would throw the EU into further disarray and not bode well for Ireland as Brexit heads into a really tricky phase.

Already, as president designate, she has vowed to defend the "precious" Irish backstop and ruled out reopening the Brexit deal.

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Article 17.7 states that the candidate chosen by the EU leaders' summit needs "a majority of its component members". That basically means she needs 376 MEPs just to allow her scrape the bar and get home.

In an ideal world, she would really need 400-plus votes to show broad support. But she has a fight on her hands and is at risk of "leaking votes" from her support base.

It would be ironic if the European Parliament, which has always espoused gender equality, rejected the first woman nominee in the history of the policy-guiding Commission. That would raise further questions about the validity of MEPs' calls for a better gender balance in the 27-member Commission.

Leo Varadkar is standing by his nomination of Phil Hogan on the grounds that he has the best chance of getting a heavy-hitting portfolio. He has not complied with Ms Von der Leyen's direction to name a man and a woman, allowing her to choose which to achieve a 50:50 gender balance.

Ireland has 11 MEPs eligible to vote tomorrow. But it's likely that perhaps only five of these will back her.

Ireland's two Green MEPs, Ciarán Cuffe and Grace O'Sullivan, are expected to stand by their group, which came down emphatically against backing her. Equally, we can expect the four Irish MEPs linked to the GUE-NGL left-wing grouping, which has 41 MEPs, to vote against her. These are Independents Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, Clare Daly, and Mick Wallace, along with Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy.

But the more worrying feature of her ratification campaign is that it is unclear how many of her own EPP grouping, even those from her native Germany, will back her.

Many members of the European Parliament are angry about EU leaders' horse-trading over top posts at a bruising summit on July 2. Anger is focused on the brushing aside of the so-called 'Spitzenkandidaten', or lead candidate process, which allowed the main parliamentary groups' to name their candidates for the job.

If the MEPs do reject Ms Von der Leyen, who came through as a late compromise candidate, it would be another reputational blow for the EU. Over the past decade, there has been a eurozone debt crisis, Brexit, and the rise of anti-EU elements on both the left and right.

There will be some last-minute "arm twisting" from many of the capitals to help her home. It is hard to see someone taking the responsibility for striking her down. But the secret ballot offers cover and makes things more complex for her campaign team.

The moves by members of her own EPP group, which has 182 seats, will be carefully watched. Some EPP members are still miffed their lead candidate, Manfred Weber of Germany, was blocked in the deal-making a fortnight ago.

One EPP source suggested Ms Von der Leyen could lose more than 20 votes here, including some from Germany. But she can be assured of the four Fine Gael members in the EPP, Seán Kelly, Mairead McGuinness, Frances Fitzgerald and Maria Walsh.

It is even more unclear how much backing she has from the Socialists, who have 153 seats. Here the problem is that Ms Von der Leyen is being actively campaigned against by some supporters of EU Commissioner vice-president Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands, a Socialist originally in line to head the new EU Commission.

She faces opposition from German Socialists who have given a damning assessment of the woman who was nominally part of a coalition with them in Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who strongly backs Ms Von der Leyen, has expressed her dismay at this.

Many will look to French President Emmanuel Macron to persuade the Renew Europe MEPs to back her. Formerly known as the Liberals, this group has 108 deputies including Billy Kelleher of Fianna Fáil.

The right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists will decide just ahead of the vote what way to vote. Officials say the group, which has 62 MEPs across 15 countries, is divided on the issue.

A nightmare outcome could be a win by a very slight majority, reputedly delivered by extremist MEPs. That could set a very bad tone for future relationships with a parliament growing in law-making power and influence.

The main hope for a successful outcome is that the big group MEPs will finally conform and vote her in after a deal of sabre-rattling. But nobody can be sure of that until the votes are counted.

Irish Independent

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