Rethinking Europe

Germany’s SPD on the War Path Against von der Leyen

Why MEPs should avoid small-minded, backbiting politics as they elect the EU Commission President.

Credit: www.GlynLowe.com - www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • MEPs should avoid small-minded, backbiting politics as they elect the EU Commission President.
  • The simple fact is that German SPD members of the European Parliament do not like Ursula von der Leyen because she is not one of them.
  • The first ever woman proposed to lead Europe can do a good job working in cooperation with MEPs to see the big picture.
  • If von der Leyen is defeated with the help of SPD MEPs, the European Parliament will be portrayed globally as collapsing into chaos.

Germany’s 16 social democrat MEPs are doing themselves and the wider democratic left in Europe no favor by seeking to block the arrival of Ursula von der Leyen as the first woman president of the European Commission.

In the past, any national head of government could veto a proposal for the top EU leadership job. Sir John Major and Tony Blair both vetoed competent possible EU Commission presidents in 1994 and 2004.

In the eyes of Downing Street, both candidates at the time were identified with a strong commitment to a more integrated Europe. The EU ended up with weaker, under-performing Commission presidents who left office under a cloud.

Petty hostilities

The simple fact is that German SPD members of the European Parliament do not like Ursula von der Leyen because she is not one of them. But no Commission president “belongs” to any national or political delegation or at least should not be the property of a party or faction or nation once elected.

The French left, including many Socialists, were hostile to Jacques Delors when he was proposed as Commission President in 1984. In France at the time, Delors was portrayed by the left as an ultra-catholic, class collaborating, economically orthodox finance minister.

In that capacity, Delors had led the campaign against the early protectionist and statist measures of François Mitterreand’s socialist administration elected in 1981.

The French left saw Delors as their main opponent as they believed that, with enough will and determination, socialism in one country might be achieved in France.

In a sense, they had a point. Delors’ fiscally orthodox economic policy was not popular and led to the victory for the French right under Jacques Chirac in the 1986 National Assembly election in France.

At the time, the French presidential term lasted seven years and a wily President Mitterrand endlessly tripped up the centre-right prime minister Jacques Chirac who then failed to defeat Mitterrand in the 1988 presidential election.

Let us remember that Jacques Delors is now canonized by European social democrats as the greatest ever European Commission president. But that was decidedly not the way in which the left saw him when he was first appointed.

History repeating itself

The German MEPs may be making the same mistake over von der Leyen. She is not a super-star minister, but truly has an impressive intellect and great ability to grasp complex issues and not only deal with them, but communicate clearly about them. She was, for example, an effective and thoughtful Labor Minister.

The SPD MEPs have circulated a highly personalized attack dossier against Frau von der Leyen. It includes old smears from her enemies about her qualifications as a doctor. The SPD should be careful as more than one eminent socialist politician in Europe, some occupying the highest posts, stand seriously accused for faking doctorates or masters degrees.

Another curious line is that von der Leyen is the candidate of Viktor Orban. To be sure, Orban rejoiced when the social democratic Spitzenkandidat, the Dutch Frans Timmermans, failed to become Commission president.

But the socialists did not get most seats the European Parliament election. The center-right EPP did. Once their candidate, Manfred Weber, who had protected Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party from expulsion from the EPP, was knocked out, all the other Spitzenkandidaten like Margrethe Vestager, Emmanuel Macron’s preferred choice as Commission president, went too.

Orban boasting he stopped Timmermans, or that he was key in supporting von der Leyen, is just bombast.

A true European

The simple fact of the matter is that there are precious few German politicians with such a strong EU background or clear identification with European values than Ursula von der Leyen. That holds true regardless of whatever experts in German politics think of her record in domestic politics.

If she is defeated with the help of SPD MEPs, the European Parliament will be portrayed globally as collapsing into chaos. President Trump, for one, will be delighted and will tweet congratulations to all those who defeated von der Leyen. So will Nigel Farage and all those who hate Europe.

SPD and other pro-European MEPs have a choice. Frau von der Leyen is not their perfect candidate. Who is? They should not make the best the enemy of the good.

The first ever woman proposed to lead Europe can do a good job working in cooperation with MEPs to see the big picture. This is not the moment for small politics.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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