Chaos at the European Commission is all too typical


URSULA von der Leyen (picture) is off to a bad start. The incoming president of the European Commission and her Cabinet were supposed to begin working Nov 1. Instead, the commission will be lucky if it gets sworn in by Christmas. Even then, it may already be damaged goods. The whole process serves as an unsubtle metaphor for a union that keeps failing to rise above its internal divisions to confront its bigger problems.

Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, got her new job this summer in one of the Byzantine political manoeuvres the European Union (EU) specialises in. Suffice to say she largely had French President Emmanuel Macron to thank and that both made a lot of enemies in the process.

These include her compatriot Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right bloc in the European Parliament, who was passed over for the presidency and is still seething.

Undeterred, von der Leyen tried to put together a commission that was “balanced” in every way that matters in today’s EU: Between men and women, among parties in the Parliament and with eastern, western, northern and southern member states getting adequate portfolios.

But once the Parliament, citing ethical concerns, legitimately rejected two eastern candidates — a socialist Romanian woman and a conservative Hungarian man — their factions bayed for revenge. A liberal from a large western country had to go. So, it was thumbs down for France’s Sylvie Goulard, ostensibly because she was accused of financial shenanigans, but more likely because she was a confidante of Macron and von der Leyen.

Weber tried not to show his schadenfreude. Macron was embarrassed and angry at von der Leyen. Everybody screamed betrayal. Now France, Hungary and Romania have to propose new commissioners for more rounds of vetting. That won’t be easy, given that in Romania, for instance, the government just collapsed. Von der Leyen had been hoping to bring the fractious EU together.

She wanted to better align her commission with the European Council, the forum in which the EU’s national leaders in effect set policy — to build trust and support in the Parliament and to overcome the rift between eastern and western member states. Little chance of all that now. The victory in Poland of the populist and Brussels-bashing Law and Justice party won’t help.

Instead of professionalism and unity: Vendettas, pettiness and feuding. This is the EU today — at a moment when there’s no shortage of real problems. Turkey (nominally still in accession talks with the EU) is invading Syria and threatening to send another wave of refugees to Europe. Four years after the previous refugee crisis, the EU still hasn’t fixed its migrant regime. Meanwhile, the union’s third most populous member state is hell-bent on crashing out, the euro hasn’t been retrofitted to prevent another financial crisis, and the EU is failing to make real progress toward meeting its climate goals. In the background, there’s a simmering trade war with the US and a hybrid conflict with Russia.

The EU is meant to be a peace project for Europe, as well as a league that can jointly stand against outside powers and threats. Currently, it looks like neither. In Brussels and Strasbourg, Eurocrats are tearing each other apart. In the member states, populists are turning their backs on the European idea. The UK already has. It’s high time for all involved to remember what’s at stake. And then get to work. — Bloomberg

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