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Ursula Von Der Leyen – Finally a Truly Political Commission ?

BLOG - 30 July 2019

As everyone will have noticed, Ursula von der Leyen is a woman, and this is certainly not an easy task. It will be the first time since the office of President of the European Commission was created that a woman will occupy it. The symbol is powerful, and the parity promised for the College of Commissioners themselves bodes well. But watching Ursula von der Leyen make her debut on the European scene, and listening carefully to the speech she gave on the 16th of July before the parliament whose vote she was seeking, offers another breakthrough: the European Commission is now headed by a politician.
 
Elected "by a narrow margin", "without enthusiasm", derogatory comments poured the day after her election, and her Opening Statement in the European Parliament Plenary Session was first analyzed as an exercise in political balancing, sending messages to all those from whom she could expect support or leniency. Possibly, this is indeed a first level of analysis: the trillion of green investments for Emmanuel Macron, the European minimum wage for social democrats, carbon neutrality for the Greens, and a sufficiently ambiguous discourse on migration and respect for the rule of law in order to rally the countries of the Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) without exposing herself to accusations of collusion with the far right. And yet, to see in Ursula von der Leyen's speech a patchwork of proposals aimed at bringing together a majority of bits and bobs is certainly a misinterpretation. The strength of this speech comes from the political vision, the coherent thought and the personal and political journey that drives it.
 
Let’s analyze the speech’s form first - because politics is a style, a way of presenting oneself and putting oneself on stage, pretending to embody not only a policy but also a political body. It's a fact, Ursula von der Leyen loves cameras, and excels in the art of storytelling - and that's what we should expect for her. She delivers her speech in three languages with equal ease. She presents herself as a European, who was born and raised in Brussels: "I was born in Brussels as a European, finding out only later that I am German with roots in Lower Saxony. And that is why there is only one option for me: to unite and strengthen Europe." 

To see in Ursula von der Leyen's speech a patchwork of proposals aimed at bringing together a majority of bits and bobs is certainly a misinterpretation.

That is the right thing to say, and it sounds right: there are probably not many leading European politicians who have experienced Europe, in such a way that this daughter of a senior European civil servant who studied at the London School of Economics did. Nor are there many who have an equivalent international experience, since she lived four years in California from 1992 to 1996. Expatriates know that it is only by leaving Europe that we begin to understand how much it exists. "The world is calling for more Europe. The world needs more Europe.": this is a woman who knows what she is talking about.

In substance, the 16th of July speech is anything but a patchwork of circumstances. Each of his accents reflects a personal commitment of Ursula von der Leyen during her political career. Starting with the question of demography, undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges for Europe, remarkably absent from Brussels’ agenda until the arrival of this former Minister for Family Affairs who broke one of the strongest taboos in her country by introducing parental leave. Referring to "regions in Europe in which schools, hospitals or companies are having to close down, we are all feeling the concrete effects of demographic change", Ursula von der Leyen talks about the German situation, but her speech will find a powerful echo in the regions of Central and Eastern Europe hit by 25 years of massive emigration, as well as in all the "empty diagonals" of the European space, which, as they watch the trains of metropolitan growth pass by, understand that they have no future. The project is immense, and raises the question of reforming the structural funds to respond to new forms of territorial imbalance.
 
"The fight for fairness never stops": the social highlights of Ursula von der Leyen's speech are of course intended to heal social democratic wounds. However they are at the same time in line with the soziale Marktwirtschaft dear to the Germans ("It's not people that serve the economy. It's the economy that serves our people."), as well as with the personal struggle led by someone who was Minister of Labour of the main European economy from 2009 to 2013. From quotas for women on boards of directors to the additional retirement plan for the most modest, she did not win all her battles, but led them with audacity, even challenging Angela Merkel herself. It is not certain that the political courage is sufficient to allow "work to pay off" everywhere in Europe, but we can certainly expect concrete initiatives in this field.
 
The defense of this European social model is not only a question of economic policy, but also of international policy. The reference to "those who are buying their global influence and creating dependencies by investing in ports and roads" shows that the new President of the Commission is ready to continue the realistic shift initiated by the outgoing team on China's issue, from partner and competitor to "systemic rival". Undoubtedly, after five years at the heart of sovereign missions as Minister of Defense, at the forefront of the German pacifism’s power, Ursula von der Leyen will make the European Union's foreign policy a priority.

With an initial proposal on the table: "have the courage to take foreign policy decisions by qualified majority, and to stand united behind them", along with an experienced and determined High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Affairs, Josep Borrell, and with new defense instruments that make credible the Commission President's dual commitment to "stay transatlantic and have to become more European". All we have to do now is explain it to Washington.

Brussels is becoming a political place, a place where a European "we" is developing, a place that political passions are beginning to invest.

In front of the MEPs, Ursula von der Leyen therefore claims to embody a European political body, and thus to combine an "I" that draws its strength from this coherence ("I will stand for..."), and this "we" that Europe still lacks: "None of these options are for us", "We want multilateralism, we want fair trade", "we have to do it the European way", "if we are to go down the European path"... Five years ago, in the same exercise, Jean-Claude Juncker's "we" was very different: "On 25 May (2014), the voters of Europe spoke to us. They sent us powerful, if sometimes contradictory, messages. Today, and in the years to come, we have to respond." The "we" in question here is the "we" of the European institutions, the "we" of the Brussels bubble.

The speech is centred on this closed universe, of which the European citizen is the reference that is constantly invoked, but also the helpless spectator. "Let us not try the public's patience by indulging in institutional debates which prevent us from focusing on what really matters - the people of Europe", had said Jean-Claude Juncker, who nevertheless devoted the whole beginning of his general policy speech to the Spitzenkandidat system, and the relative powers of Parliament, the European Council and the Commission... "The Commission is political. And I want it to be more political. Indeed, it will be highly political.": Jean-Claude Juncker had said it, yet we are still waiting. Will Ursula von der Leyen make it happen?
 
Something, in any case, is happening in Europe, and mostly outside the Brussels bubble. The rebound in the turnout for the May European elections, from 42.6 to 51%, almost everywhere in Europe, was already a sign that something was happening in this emerging political space. Today, the political upheavals in Italy, where the majority is torn around Cinque Stelle's support for the new President of the Commission, are also a sign of this new reality that is emerging: Brussels is becoming a political place, a place where a European "we" is developing, a place that political passions are beginning to invest. Macron, but also Salvini and Orbán had something to do with it. So did Angela Merkel, who, through Ursula von der Leyen, offers Europe a political programme, while shaping the future of her own party, on the way to an alliance with the Greens. Could it be that we will be passionate about Brussels politics in the next five years? And could it be that, in order to take action, we are finally sending there the best of "us"?

 

Copyright : LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

 

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