X Close

The great Brussels stitch-up Over dinner last night, von der Leyen was crowned again

Emmanuel Macron needs von der Leyen (LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Emmanuel Macron needs von der Leyen (LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


June 18, 2024   5 mins

Since the results of the European elections started to trickle through, the continent’s elites have been scrambling to minimise their impact. Faced with a predictable surge in support for Right-populist parties, their strategy has been relatively simple: to fast-track the usually lengthy process for the selection of the bloc’s three top jobs — that of president of the European Commission, currently held by Ursula von der Leyen; of president of the European Council, held by Charles Michel; and of foreign policy chief, which is currently in the hands of Josep Borrell. Within hours, Operation Save Brussels had gone into overdrive, in an attempt to “lock in” the EU’s institutional set-up for the next five years before the Right-populists make any more advances.

It was in honour of this mission that EU leaders held an “informal” dinner in Brussels last night. Amid frenzied briefings and counter-briefings, the discussions largely centred on the presidency of the Commission — the most powerful and coveted post in the EU. And even if they failed to reach an agreement for all three posts, von der Leyen’s reconfirmation seems all but certain.

As far as the European Council is concerned, von der Leyen can count on the backing of the 11 heads of state or government who are affiliated with the EPP bloc, as well as the four belonging to the centre-left S&D, including Germany, and the five belonging to the liberal Renew Europe, including France. These three groups are, after all, part of the “super grand coalition” that has supported von der Leyen in the European Parliament for the past five years.

For now, Germany and France haven’t formally endorsed her, but everything indicates Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron — faced with record-low domestic support and massive gains by the AfD and the National Rally — are betting on a second von der Leyen term as a way of securing an “anti-populist” ally in Brussels. “We will build a bastion together with others against the extremes of the Left and Right,” von der Leyen stated after the elections — something which Scholz and Macron are desperately in need of.

This is arguably why Scholz has said that “there is every indication that Ursula von der Leyen will be able to serve a second term”, and why even Macron, who had previously flirted with replacing her with the former Italian prime minister and president of the European Central Bank (ECB) Mario Draghi, would appear to have fallen in line. “I think that things can move quite quickly,” he coyly remarked before last night’s summit.

It was, if we needed it, a reminder that the EU shouldn’t simply be viewed as a supranational authority that infringes upon the autonomy of nation-states (though it is also that, of course), but also as an institution which pro-establishment national authorities can, if needed, deploy against their own “populist” adversaries — and against their own electorates. France is a case in point. As soon as Macron called a snap election in response to Le Pen’s crushing victory last week, the “spread” between French and German government borrowing costs immediately rose to the highest level in years. Now, this could be seen as a “natural” reaction of financial markets to the prospect of a “populist” majority coming to power in France — and this is certainly how much of the media is framing it. But this ignores the fact that, ultimately, the spread is determined by the central bank — in the EU’s case, the ECB — which always has the power to bring down interest rates by intervening in sovereign bond markets. Markets only have power over states insofar as the central bank refuses to act.

Regrettably, the ECB has a long history of selectively refusing to intervene in support of sovereign bond markets, and engineering financial and fiscal panics. It did this, for example, with Italy’s Giorgia Meloni — allowing interest rates to rise as soon as her government came to power, and only intervening to bring them down once the new government pledged to submit to the EU’s economic agenda. It would now appear to be pre-emptively applying the same strategy against Le Pen in France.

This does, of course, run contrary to what should be the ECB’s principal job: keeping the spread down, or at least mitigating its rise, and thus allowing the democratic process in France to proceed as smoothly as possible. But unfortunately, the ECB isn’t a normal central bank; it’s a full-blooded political actor that has no qualms with coercing governments to comply with the overall political-economic agenda of the EU. It seems inevitable, for instance, that if Le Pen were to win the next election, the central bank’s pressure on France would only increase: expect hysterical takes on France’s ballooning fiscal deficit, despite the fact that France has had a higher-than-average deficit for years, though this was never a problem so long as pro-EU governments were in power.

It also goes without saying that this strategy plays perfectly into Macron’s hands, who can point to the turbulence in financial markets to paint Le Pen as an economic menace. Le Pen, it seems, is about to learn that dropping her anti-euro agenda might help her get into power, but it won’t help her hold onto it, unless she jettisons her economic populism and aligns herself with the establishment on major economic and foreign policy issues.

A variation on the same logic applies to Meloni. Though she hasn’t officially endorsed von der Leyen, she’s likely to come round in the end for very much the same reason: her political survival depends on having an ally in the European Commission, and on the good will of the ECB, especially with the threat of a new round of crushing austerity measures hanging over Italy’s head. Von der Leyen has worked hard behind the scenes trying to lock in Meloni’s support, even reportedly going as far as burying an official EU report criticising Italy for eroding media freedoms. As one Commission official told Politico: “There is visibly a willingness to put the brakes on issues related to Italy and the rule of law.”

If, as appears likely, von der Leyen succeeds in getting the backing of the European Council, she looks set for a smooth ride in the European Parliament. Von der Leyen’s current “super grand coalition” actually increased its seats compared to the past legislature. This means that, even accounting for some rebellious MEPs within those groups’ ranks, she appears to be on a clear path to re-election — especially if she can secure the support of the 24 MEPs elected with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.

“Von der Leyen looks set for a smooth ride in the European Parliament.”

And if this does happen, it’s hard to imagine a bigger slap in the face to the millions of voters who used the recent ballots to express their opposition to the disastrous consequences of Brussels’s agenda: rising living costs, growing socioeconomic precarity, high immigration, creeping deindustrialisation, divisive identity politics and the growing risk of war with Russia. But then again, the EU was never about democracy.

A similar logic is likely to inspire the choice of the president of the European Council. According to the Italian press, one of the names being touted is that of former prime minister Enrico Letta, as mediocre a politician as they come, whose main claim to fame is to have failed miserably in every position he has ever held. As an unflinching pro-EU zealot, however, he would be a perfect sparring partner for von der Leyen, helping her to keep recalcitrant governments in line — especially in view of Hungary’s upcoming six-months-long rotating presidency of the European Council, which the EU establishment looks upon in horror.

But as stitch-ups go, will it endure? It was hard not to shake the odour of complacency wafting through Brussels last night. Yes, the only thing less predictable than last week’s results was the EU machine’s response to them. But even so, looking at the populist sweep across the bloc, one cannot help but wonder: for how much longer can Europe’s delegitimised elites continue to override popular discontent with “informal” dinners and horse-trading deals?


Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.

battleforeurope

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

64 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
1 month ago

Wouldn’t firing Von der Leyen be a slap at the majority who voted for the mainstream/establishment parties that won a very clear majority together. I voted for a candidate that that I wasn’t sure I liked, but who belonged to a party that is part of EPP. Beside the necessity of more military aid to Ukraine, support for the excellent leadership of Von der Leyen was one of the determining factors for my vote.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago

Unherd’s down-voters seem to have missed your subtle sarcasm, Micael. You almost had me too until ‘excellent leadership’.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Sorry, I really was serious. And I really like on der Leyen. Whether her leadership is viewed as excellent or not probably depend on what views one has about everything from Ukraine to the EU itself. Which president of the European Comission do you think have been better and why?

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
29 days ago

She was bad, because underc her the EC engaged in serious mission creep, way outside the confines of the Treaties.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Such as?

Andrew F
Andrew F
29 days ago

Setup of judiciary in members countries is outside EU treaties.
Are you aware of Polands treatment by EU in this regard?
What about forcing countries like Poland to accept immigrants because EU countries can not be bother to control their borders?

Andrew F
Andrew F
29 days ago
Reply to  Andrew F

What about withholding of EU funds till “correct” government was elected in Poland?

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago
Reply to  Andrew F

The government were corrupting the justice system by destroying the independence of the courts. I am only sad that EU couldn’t act stronger and faster regarding that.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Article 2 of TEU (Treaty of the European Union) defines rule of law as a fundamental value of the EU. When countries like Poland try to do away with independent courts and corrupt the justice system, they are acting against the treaty. You may not like it, it I fail to see how it is acting against or outside of the EU treaties.
I am not exactly clear on what you mean by the second example. Are you referring to the free movements of people within the Union, or to quotas for refugees in the member countries of the Union?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
29 days ago

What about her dealings with Pfizer and the missing messages? And her punishment of EU countries that refuse to march in goose-step to her cultural imperatives? When the EU project started, we were all told that individual national sovereignty would be respected. This seems to have been a big lie.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

The case about Pfizer is not closed yet, so we will see. I think, even if she is shown to have acted illegally, that it was good to have a leader who could act decisively in a situation of crisis. Actually it shows how she is better than for examples Junker, who probably would have done nothing.
I don’t know what you refer to with “when the EU project started”, but when my country joined in the mid 90s it was obvious that practical sovereignty was partial (except that you can kick up you ball and leave). It would hardly have been a Union if every member state had absolute sovereignty.

Andrew F
Andrew F
29 days ago

Your believe in democratic nature of EU is quite hilarious.
So called EU parliament is nothing of the sort.
It is well paid sinecure for failed European politicians.
This mickey mouse “parliament” has no ability to initiate legislation or really hold executive to account.
The sooner EU reverts to being trade organisations, the better.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago
Reply to  Andrew F

I know the EU parliament is weaker than it should be. But it can reject the candidate for president proposed by the council of ministers. If there was a majority of “right wing populists”, they could block Von der Leyen. But they can’t, not even if they join up with the far left, because they didn’t win a majority. I thought Thomas Fazi’s reasoning was strange, because he was arguing as if there was a majority of European voters who supported them. If they win a majority they can say no to every candidate the council of ministers proposes until the council proposes a candidate they like.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
29 days ago
Reply to  Andrew F

The EEC was always intended to become the EU…it was never just a trading bloc…and the UK should never have joined.

It now wants to become a military power. The UK would be best advised to stay well clear…but won’t.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
29 days ago

You have a slave mentality or work in government — or is it both?

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

I don’t work in government, so I guess it is slave mentality then

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

It’s like living in Vienna in 1913, only this time all of Europe gets to join in the fun.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago

May you live in interesting times.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
29 days ago

Vienna in 1848 ( It took 2 years to quell the uprising in Hungary) and in 1862 Vienna had to accept Hungary as an equal partner anyway

Andrew F
Andrew F
29 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Suppression happened with the help of Russian troops.
However moves towards recognising Hungarians as partners in Empire were under way already.
Similar to 1956 uprising.
So attitudes of Hungarian towards Ukraine are puzzling.
Yes, I know about Hungarian minority problems in Ukraine (my family is from Galicia), but supporting Russia aggression is a disgrace.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
1 month ago

Behind the veneer of civilized socialistic policies there is a structure of a fully undemocratic shadow government with unopposed powers. “We, the Anointed …” to conjure up the spirit of Thomas Sowell

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

Whoever said ‘government is blackmail’ certainly got it right where the EU is concerned.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

Say what you like about Von Der Leyen – she is better than Juncker.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

At least Juncker occasionally told the truth (usually when drunk) cf: his July 2018 speech where he basically admitted that the EU is a dictatorship.

Andrew F
Andrew F
29 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Looks like choice between cancer and stroke…

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
29 days ago
Reply to  Andrew F

What about diabetes? They live pretty high on the hog in Brussels.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
29 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Doesn’t get loaded in public, so that’s a plus.

John Riordan
John Riordan
29 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Ok I’ll say what I like – she’s not bettter than Juncker.

Liam F
Liam F
29 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Ha,I’ll give you that.! Made me chuckle.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago

YOU get a Technocracy! And YOU get a Technocracy! And YOU get a Technocracy!

David L
David L
1 month ago

We can’t vote our way out of this.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
29 days ago
Reply to  David L

The Irish tried twice and then returned the vote the EU wanted.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
27 days ago
Reply to  David L

The Brits managed to vote their way out of it quite well.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
25 days ago
Reply to  David L

When you “can’t vote your way out,” democracy has failed. The essence of democracy is that the people get to decide the destination of the voyage. The duty of government is to steer the ship around the rocks on the way, not take over and go where the bureaucracy directs.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

It never ceases to amaze me how, when faced with some danger to the EU – real or perceived – the EU elites (I don’t like that label but it’s the best I can think of now to describe the mix of top Brussels and national politicians I mean) manage to do the exact thing which will exacerbate the problem.
VdL is a case in point. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with a positive opinion of her. Even staunch EU fans say “urgh, no”. And yet we will be “treated” to a second term.
And then there is this: https://www.politico.eu/article/european-union-france-budget-fines-far-right/ If this actually happens and France gets fined for the first time precisely when the RN is on the up/in power, what message does that send out?
Enforcement of the rules isn’t contingent on a failure to comply with them – it’s contingent on whether the current government is liked in Brussels or not. We saw the exact same thing with Poland: more or less the minute Tusk was elected, the rule of law proceedings were dropped, even though it was and is uncertain whether he will be able to make the changes that Brussels demanded. Blatant favouritism, and absolutely arbitrary.
Wouldn’t this kind of treatment be the best way possible to make the RN start talking about Frexit again?

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre
AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Quite so. But if you view the EU Commission and hangers on as sharing and defending a common ideology – and their patronage – then so much becomes clearer.
Wikipedia:

The nomenklatura were a category of people within the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries who held various key administrative positions in the bureaucracy, running all spheres of those countries’ activity: government, industry, agriculture, education, etc., whose positions were granted only with approval by the communist party of each country or region.

I guess the Soviet Union and the European Union are not so far apart, except that the Soviet Union eventually collapsed.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

As will the EU eventually, but they’ll have destroyed Europe in the meantime.

David Harris
David Harris
29 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The EUSSR…

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Ha! It depends on who you talk to. When discussing how to vote before the elections, both my wife and my 19year old son came up (independently of each other) that reelecting Von der Leyen was an important goal when choosing how to vote. They voted a different party to me, but both their party and mine is part of the EPP.

Chipoko
Chipoko
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

EU elites. How about “the EU Woking Class”?

Simon
Simon
29 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Can anyone name any EU President of consequence other than Jacques Delors? VdL has been an assured president—she works had and is across the issues—and I for one wish her well in her second term.

p3rfunct0ry 4p4th3t1c
p3rfunct0ry 4p4th3t1c
1 month ago

YEAR ZERO is becoming more appealing with every passing day!

As for Le Pen? Jean-Marie would still be my choice. Can’t be many left now from this unit. 1er Régiment Etranger de Parachutistes.

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips
1 month ago

The EU institutions are comical in their utter disdain for the basic principles of democracy.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
29 days ago
Reply to  Simon Phillips

Sinister is more like it.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago

“Enrico Letta, as mediocre a politician as they come, whose main claim to fame is to have failed miserably in every position he has ever held. ”

Perfect fit for Useless von der Leyen in that case.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
29 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

The Peter Principle tells us that failure in a bureaucracy leads to promotion to one’s level of incompetence. Ursula von der Leyen flopped as the defense minister in the government of Russian asset Angela Merkle and so therefore was transmitted to Brussels stardom.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
29 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Exactly! Before she could face German parliamentarian committee digging into her lucrative Defense contracts awarded to outside consultants, she was transferred by Merkel to become the President of the EU Commission. Now she is also facing corruption allegation in connection with Pfizer’s COVID Vaccines and gets awarded a second term.

Charlie Dibsdale
Charlie Dibsdale
29 days ago

This shenanigans is mainly why I voted to leave the EU. Utterly disgusting and lacking in democracy.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago

What shenanigans?

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
29 days ago

Awarding people high positions in the EU’s bureaucracy despite corruption, a total lack of competence or any democratic vote.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago

Thanks for your answer.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago

But I wonder what Charlie Dibsdale meant.

Liam F
Liam F
29 days ago

Why? Surely the article articulates the EU’s basic lack of even a semblance of democracy.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago
Reply to  Liam F

As I said somewhere else in the comments, Fazi’s arguments are weird, since he writes as if “right wing populists” had won the elections, and the EU bureaucracy ignored the fact. They did not win.
While there certainly are bureaucracy and corruption (just as in national governments) the fact remains that the European Parliament can block any proposed candidate for comission president (not so different from how it theoretically works in the U.K, where the King appoints Prime Ministers, but Parliament can block them). And the organ that proposes the candidate is the council of ministers, which represents the (hopefully) democratic national governments.
If the so called “populists” had won the elections they would have been able to bock any candidate they didn’t like.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
29 days ago

Nothing changes if nothing changes.

John Davis
John Davis
29 days ago

I think Thomas needs to re-wrirte this in the light of what actually happened. I gather the stitch-up failed and Meloni was furious at being shut out from the decision making. Macron now saying “we’ll have to leave it to stew…”
(Source: Bruno Waterfield in the Times)

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
29 days ago

Thomas Fazi’s usual petulant attack on the EU ignores that the populists did not gain as much as expected in the European Parliament elections and are way short of a majority. Likewise, in the member states their mandate is patchy. In what way is Meloni’s Government any different from its Christian Democratic predecessors? And the Left in France may secure more support than Le Pen in the forthcoming elections.

But then Fazi fails to understand that the quasi-federal structure of the EU, built up incrementally over decades of democratic endorsement by the member states, has its own constitutional and popular legitimatcy. The European elections are now accepted as a Continent-wide exercise in democracy. And the democratically elected heads of Government complement the suprantional apparatus in Brussels. Not a single member state is advocating withdrawal from the EU.

Thomas Fazi depicts the ECB as overtly political. Any more political than the Fed? Its purpose is to protect the euro, the binding glue of the entire Union. And it has succeeded in making it unthinkable for the euro to collapse, as the savings and living standards of pampered European voters would collapse with it. And they know it. The EU for all its flaws keeps the Continent from falling apart.

Robb Maclean
Robb Maclean
29 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Cloud cuckoo land.
Where are the manifestos?
The European Parliament can neither propose or amend legislation.
They simply rubber-stamp.
Democracy my @#£%.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
29 days ago

According to the Peter Principle people in a hierarchy tend to rise to ‘a level of respective incompetence.’ Ursula von der Leyen has never been good at any of her jobs but keeps rising in one hierarchy after another.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
29 days ago

Backroom deals in a foreign city. That’s the way to run Britain. Anyone for Remain?

Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
29 days ago

The description of the ECB could, unfortunately, be ascribed to the Bank of England with its action before the Truss budget, continued action in the bond market and delay in lowering the interest rate.
After the forthcoming election, interest rates will immediately drop and bond sales will stop providing an immediate impact on the economic outlook.
The Bank of England is clearing the decks before their mates take command of the ship of state.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
29 days ago

Seems like most of my comments have vanished. Nice to know that it happens regardless of your political views.

Elizabeth Hamilton
Elizabeth Hamilton
24 days ago

IF PERHAPS IF Bardella (Le Pen’s party) gets an absolute majority in the French parliament as a result of the second round of the election on July 7th and so becomes prime minister, and then PERHAPS IF the ECB tries to screw France as a consequence, then MAYBE JUST MAYBE, the electorate that got him into power will stick with him and, at long last, understand the need to exit the European Union. And then MAYBE WHY NOT WHO KNOWS #Frexit #FoolsGold #CastlesInTheAir