Why the new EU leader is good news for Brexit

Why the new EU leader is good news for Brexit

The blonde haired, blue-eyed German (now former) Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen is set to be the new head of the EU’s technocratic institution – the European Commission. She is a departure from the EU norm in many ways. She is becoming Commission President without having been a lead candidate for a European political party in this May’s European elections. She will also be the first female Commission President. Furthermore, she is the first to take office while still having a formal parliamentary investigation into nepotism in her former ministry that she launched herself! She will be heading the EU institution responsible for negotiating our departure from and future relationship with the EU and is good news for both. Her track-record suggests that she will be pragmatic and stand-up against the Commission establishment at the expense of her popularity if needed. Translated to UK-EU relations: this is good news!

Ms von der Leyen, will play an important role in Brexit regardless of whether we leave on 31 October as intended. She is currently President elect of the Commission and is due to formally assume her role on 1 November. If we do leave by the end of October, then we would be negotiating our post-Brexit relationship with a Commission led by von der Leyen. If we ask for an extension, then we would be further negotiating the deal with a von der Leyen led Commission. 

Unlike the current key players in the Commission, Ms von der Leyen’s starting position is not to try to make “an example” out of the UK. For the EU establishment, Brexit was perceived as a personal threat against the project they had dedicated their lives to. The fact that being outside the EU could not be as advantageous as being inside the EU was the mantra repeated almost at every opportunity by the EUs chief negotiators Mr Michel Barnier and the now outgoing Commission President Mr Jean-Claude Juncker. The outgoing Secretary General of the European Commission Martin Selmayr, the right-hand man of the outgoing Commission President Mr Juncker, was also known to often say that the UK needed to be made an example of.

In her first interview after becoming the European Commission President-elect, von der Leyen put positive emphasis on a post-Brexit UK-EU relationship while of course trying not to undermine Barnier or Juncker. She said “it would be wrong to see Brexit only as the end of something… For both sides it is of the highest interest that there is an orderly and good beginning to our future relationships.”

She also has a soft-spot for our capital city. Not only is she a fluent English speaker but she attended one of our top universities, London School of Economics and Political Sciences LSE, in 1978. Speaking about the experience, she had told the weekly Die Zeit: “for me, London was the epitome of modernity: freedom, the joy of life, trying everything. This gave me an inner freedom that I have kept until today.”

Ms Von der Leyen also has a track record of standing up for what she believes in even if it is at the expense of her own popularity. She stood up against what she termed as an “attitude problem” in the military when stories of hazing and right-wing extremism emerged. She also called out her own Ministry for nepotism shedding light on the allocation of over-inflated contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros to external consultants that is now being formally investigated by a Committee in the German Parliament. These resulted in her becoming the least popular minister in Merkel’s cabinet. 

Furthermore, Ms Von der Leyen is an ultimate insider with an understanding of what it means to be on the edges of a club. She should therefore be able to relate to what the British Conservatives face in Brussels in terms of not being welcomed with open-arms despite coming from the establishment of a major EU country. Von der Leyen comes from the governing party in the EU’s largest and richest Member State – the CDU in Germany. Yet, she was not welcomed with open arms by the Brussels bubble. She is perceived as a threat by the European establishments believers in an ever-closer political union because she represents a departure from the so-called Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) system. Some German MEPs like Martin Schirdewan have even published articles in Brussels media calling her nomination “a betrayal of democracy.”

Her European political party, the European People’s Party (EPP), had chosen her fellow German Manfred Weber to be their lead candidate in the European elections. This should have meant Mr Weber becoming Commission President given that the EPP emerged from the European elections as the largest grouping in the European Parliament. However, the devil is always in the details. While the Spitzenkandidat system represents an answer of the believers in ever-closer political union to the democratic deficit of the EU, the system is based on a gentlemen’s agreement. Legally, the heads of state and government propose, and the European Parliament elects the person in. Mr Webber was not acceptable to the non-EPP heads of state and government. In order to loosely respect the Spitzen system’s underlying principle, another German EPP was thus put forward – Ms Von Der Leyen. 

The fact that she is indeed the establishment’s underdog was illustrated by the fact that she was only elected in by a very narrow majority of 9. On Wednesday 17 July, she needed 374 members of the European parliament to vote in favour of her nomination and she just got in with 383 votes in her favour! That’s a slim majority of 9!

She may not yet be the darling of the Brussels establishment, but she does come from the EU’s power hub. It is no secret that nothing gets done in the EU without German backing. With Ms Von der Leyen as Commission President, the Germans move from a position of backing things to leading from the frontlines. German leadership and Ms Von der Leyen’s pragmatism are both better news for the UK than the alternatives – the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier or the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

Brexit depends not only on dynamics in Westminster but dynamics in the rest of Europe. The person heading the Commission, that is responsible for the negotiations of our withdrawal and future relationship, will be key. The fact that Von der Leyen will be taking on this role is good news for the UK and the rest of Europe. It is in both the EU’s and UK’s interest to take a pragramtic approach to Brexit and find a solution that prioritizes the interests of businesses and citizens.