The Brexit knife-edge grand finale and a bitter row blocking a €1.8tn EU budget caused most of Europe’s press to overlook an important anniversary on Monday.
That was the day Ursula von der Leyen – known as VDL in Brussels – marked a full year as head of the policy-guiding EU Commission. The first woman in its 60-plus years to take charge of this Brussels “engine room” has grounds to be pleased with the outcome of year one.
She has shown herself to be persistent and also ruthless but the next four years of her term are packed with many uncertainties. The ruthlessness came in the way she cooperated in dispatching Irish high-achieving Commissioner Phil Hogan last August and in securing the replacement candidate she wanted in Mairéad McGuinness.
But Irish people will be most interested in her background role in ongoing Brexit talks which are now at a crucial phase. There is a fear that she might lean too heavily towards placating the UK to secure a smooth ending.
But VDL is now presiding over the biggest EU budget ever agreed by the 27 national leaders, with €1.1tn in funding for the years 2021-2027, and a whopping top-up of €750bn in a Covid-19 recovery fund. Better again, the European Commission is itself now authorised for the first time to borrow on world money markets to help fund economic recovery, leveraging the EU’s huge resources to underwrite long-term debt.
Detractors rightly say that this was essentially possible because her former German government boss Angela Merkel abandoned her usual caution and accepted the big funding ideas of French President Emmanuel Macron.
This backing from the EU long-established Franco-German axis was reminiscent of the great Jacques Delors, whose Brussels decade 1985-1995 saw the creation of the border-free single market and the foundations for a single European currency, all thanks to joint backing of Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl.
But clearly VDL won’t have the Merkel-Macron axis much longer. By this time next year Germany will have a new chancellor and Emmanuel Macron faces an election in May 2022.
She had a difficult early start in Brussels barely getting the European Parliament numbers to be ratified in a job she was nominated for as a late compromise candidate. The opening weeks of the Covid-19 crisis last February and March found the EU badly disorganised with impromptu border closures and poor coordination between member governments.
She attracted criticism on a few occasions for not adhering to Covid-19 rules on travel and isolation. That was after eyebrows were raised at her decision to have a few rooms at Commission HQ converted to “a flat over the shop” as living accommodation.
But Ms von der Leyen showed persistence. As time went on the EU got its Covid act together, kept important supply lines open and did stellar work on the vaccine.
The endorsement by the 27 EU leaders of the funding package after five days of talks in Brussels was a triumph for her quiet background presence and the dogged diplomacy of the EU summit chairman, the former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. They had to overcome the opposition of the “frugal four,” Austria, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden, and have yet to overcome the bitter opposition of Poland and Hungary to attaching “rule of law” conditions to accessing their funding share.
The belligerent stance of Poland and Hungary is slowly building into a crisis. Next Monday is the final deadline to pass an EU budget for next year under the new and more generous 2021-2027 regime.
That raises the prospect of running on the 2020 budget being doled out on a monthly basis and a shortfall of anything up to €30bn on expected funding hitting many grant aid programmes. That one has big implications for Ireland when it comes to rural funding, social and regional grants, and expectations like Brexit support and Covid-19 recovery funds.
And the other EU challenges – tackling climate change, migration and developing a more digital economy – will remain to confront the Brussels leader. The changing of the guard in Berlin and possibly Paris may mean she cannot be guaranteed the vital support so well into the future which helped her through year one.
Ms von der Leyen has tried to find a way through this budget impasse by urging Poland and Hungary to lift their blocking objections and put the issue in dispute before the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg rather than making EU citizens suffer. She has said she believes “the rule of law” conditions are perfectly reasonable and in line with mainstream EU values.
“But if someone does have legal doubts, there is a very clear path, they can go to the European Court of Justice, this is the place where we usually thrash out differences of opinion regarding legal tests, and not at the expense of millions of Europeans who are desperately waiting for our help, because we are in the middle of a deep, deep crisis,” she said.
But so far the governments in Warsaw and Budapest find it more politically advantageous to block the political lines than to take a chance in the EU Courts.
Back with Brexit, she is looking at her chief negotiator Michel Barnier coming under intense pressure from the UK side to compromise and avoid no-deal carnage. But inside the EU, countries like France and Netherlands fear he may concede too much.