Why von der Leyen won’t go

Copyright: "EU budget debate ahead of crucial summit - with Ursula von der Leyen (European Commission)" by European Parliament is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Robert Tyler (political strategist, working for a European political party)

There have been growing calls for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to resign over her poor handling  of the coronavirus crisis. There is of course no shortage of reasons why she should go – from her political dawdling at the beginning of the crisis, to the failure to procure enough vaccines to cover the collective distribution of the continent.

Whilst the buck might stop with the President of the Commission, it is hard to see that Frau von der Leyen will be leaving any time soon. Least of all, because she has given no indication of wanting to throw in the towel yet, but mostly because the political machinery required to remove her is not in place.

Firstly, the framework set out in the Treaties makes it difficult to remove a sitting President.

Secondly, the political will is not there to remove her.

And thirdly, there is no one capable enough or sufficiently willing to replace her.

In the first case, the problem is with the system for removing a Commissioner, including the President. The Treaties have been drafted in a way to protect Commissioners from removal. In order to be removed, under Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty, a motion has to be brought before the European Parliament by 10% of MEPs. Once that has been done, the Commission President has to inform the College of Commissioners, and 24 hours after that, the debate in the European Parliament may begin. After 48 hours of debate, the vote can take place, but only by recorded ‘roll call’ vote. The Commission in its entirety is dismissed if the vote passes by two thirds majority.

This entire convoluted system is designed in such a way that it is incredibly difficult for the European Parliament to remove the Commission, and excludes any possibility to remove a single Commissioner from post.

This system leads into the second point, which is that there is a lack of political will to remove von der Leyen. Not because she is popular, but because the other political groups don’t want to lose their people in the Commission. The political balance in the European Commission has always been a sensitive issue, especially in cases when a Commissioner was appointed by a previous government. For example, the current Commissioner from Slovakia was appointed just weeks before Slovaks elected a new government. The same was true of Slovenia, which saw a change of government only months after its Commissioner took office.

Other Commission appointees unlikely to return are those that were sent to Brussels for political reasons – such as neutralising an electoral threat, as highlighted in Danish political TV drama “Borgen”, in particular in the episode “In Brussels No One Can Hear You Scream”. Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans – a social democrat – was appointed by Dutch liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte in order to prevent him from becoming a viable challenger in the next parliamentary elections. With the elections now over, and Rutte having secured his fourth term of office, there is no longer a need to keep him out of the way, and a new Commission would give him a chance to put someone from his own liberal party in place.

For the European Peoples Party, it is also a matter of ensuring that they don’t end up losing the top job itself to Renew Europe or the Socialists in backroom negotiations over a possible successor.

The final reason why it is unlikely that von der Leyen will need to go now is that no one currently wants the top job. Whilst many politicians in Europe are known to have their eyes on the top job in the Berlaymont Building in the future, it is clear that becoming EC President is a poisoned chalice at the moment.

The mess that a new occupant of the Berlaymont building would face, extends beyond more than just the vaccine crisis. On his or her plate will also be the upcoming financial difficulties, industry bailouts, the fragmented political union, the breakdown in relations with the UK and America, while more unknown crises may be on the horizon. Needless to say that at the moment the position of Commission President is an unenviable one.

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