European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union Address was remarkable in a number of ways. It marked an informal but very tangible constitutional change in European Institutions whereby the Commission becomes in practice if not in law a parliamentary cabinet. She hued as closely to the policies promoted by a majority of the MEP’s as Elizabeth II does in her Queen’s speech to the Houses of Parliament when she reads a text handed to her by the Prime Minister.
The reasons for this development are perfectly obvious. When her candidacy for president was put to a vote in the European Parliament, she barely squeaked by. This, after having spent several weeks in a charm campaign when she consulted with and listened to all the leading parties of the incoming parliament. The reason for her difficulties was what was construed as a violation of the growing parliamentary habits of the EU Institutions whereby the new President is chosen from among the candidates put up by the parties and the award is given to the party with the largest number of incoming MEPs, which was the PPE, the right of center People’s Party.
Under pressure from Emmanuel Macron, the PPE’s candidate was passed over and the nod went to von der Leyen, who was a PPE member but not its internally selected candidate. We all noted at the time that this choice was tolerated but not encouraged by German Chancellor Merkel, in whose cabinet von der Leyen served as Defense Minister. We also noted that von der Leyen was not a star performer in Germany; indeed, she had come under heavy criticism for mismanaging her ministry and for various financial scandals. The backing by Macron was somewhat hard to explain, though everyone pointed to von der Leyen’s perfect fluency in French, having grown up and been schooled in Brussels. In any case, back then, a year ago, Macron’s star was still on the ascendant, Gilets Jaunes notwithstanding, while Merkel’s star was sinking, as health problems and difficulties with her coalition partners forced her to declare a retirement date. She was, it would have seemed, a lame duck.
What we saw in von der Leyen’s speech yesterday shows that Macron completely misunderstood whom he was backing in von der Leyen, completely misjudged his powers relative to Frau Merkel.
There was very little content on International Relations in von der Leyen’s speech, and it came at the very end, which by itself is extraordinary. The great bulk of her speech was devoted to economic issues, health issues and domestic spending in the EU. One might say that these priorities indicate an isolationist turn of mind that corresponds perfectly well to the Greens, who were among the biggest winners in the 2019 elections to the European Parliament but who seemed to have been ignored by von der Leyen during the coalition building that immediately preceded and followed her installation as Commission President. The Greens’ expectation of being ‘king makers’ seemed to have been foiled. Until yesterday…
What little there was of foreign policy in von der Leyen’s speech would have suited the German Greens in particular, since it was militant Cold War talk. Mention of the Continent’s biggest country which sits just on the Eastern frontier of the EU came in the following three sentences:
“To those who advocate closer ties with Russia, I say that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with an advanced chemical agent is not a one off. We have seen the pattern in Georgia and Ukraine, Syria and Salisbury – and in election meddling around the world. This pattern is not changing – and no pipeline will change that.”
A more pithy, vitriolic and propagandistic statement could not have been pronounced by the Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg. Indeed, one wonders why von der Leyen was installed in Place Schumann and not in the NATO headquarters out at Zaventem where militancy could be delivered with a Female Face, carrying gender equality through still tougher ceilings than within the EU Institutions.
Von der Leyen’s speech opened with mention of European values and the ideological messaging came up frequently, never curdling in the mouth of this very German politician, or so it would seem. We saw it in her remarks on Belarus: “I want to say it loud and clear: the European Union is on the side of the people of Belarus.” What exactly that translates into in terms of financial, political and, dare we say it, military meddling is not yet clear. But if she wants a war with Russia, no cause than championing an ‘orange revolution’ in Belarus could turn the trick better.
And, last but not least, von der Leyen said she will introduce and promote a “European Magnitsky Act.” What is that all about?
Let us return to the question of Monsieur Macron and his seeming victories on the European stage just after the May 2019 elections of the European Parliament. Shortly afterwards we learned that his just elected ‘en marche’ MEPs were combining with the 10% of MEPs that had for years been led by the NeoLiberal MEP, former premier of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt under the grouping labeled ALDE. The new grouping would go under the name “Renew Europe.”
Verhofstadt soon afterwards disappeared from view and it would have seemed that Macron now would be leading a group of MEPs counting something like 15% of the European Parliament, heading them in a wholly new direction as regards relations with the big neighbor to the East. This was the time when Macron had his one-on-one meetings with Vladimir Putin and made very bold promises to bring Russia in from the cold into the European House. It was somewhat before Macron scandalized Frau Merkel and other pillars of the status quo in that same house with his remarks on NATO being “brain dead.”
In two places in her speech, von der Leyen was giving Macron the finger. One was her remark cited above, addressed to “those that advocate closer ties with Russia.” The other was in her advocacy of a “European Magnitsky Act.” Such an act makes reference to the supposedly terrible violation of human rights that was supposedly perpetrated by Kremlin agents against a certain Sergei Magnitsky for his supposed whistle blowing about crimes in high places.
The original Magnitsky Act was promulgated in the United States in 2012 when the Russia-hating majority in the U.S. Congress was conned into it by a certain fraudster, William Browder, Sergei Magnitsky’s erstwhile boss. The Act sought to blacken the reputation of Putin and to cast the Russian Federation into pariah status. Browder tried with might and main to see it reissued in Europe. His cause was taken up with alacrity by precisely Verhofstadt and his Russia-hating followers in ALDE. Now we find that Verhofstadt is having the last laugh in terms of setting policy for the combined group of MEPs called “Renew Europe.” And Von der Leyen has taken up their cause and made it that of the European Commission.
For Europe’s young people no doubt von der Leyen’s Green initiatives will look great. For those of us with a gray hair or two, and with interests that go beyond the nearest state boundary, her foreign affairs agenda such as she outlined in her speech yesterday will look oh so retro. Europe is well on its way to further marginalization in international affairs. And Macron has been proven to be an empty windbag.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020