She’s EU leaders’ pick for European Commission president — and those leaders will need to rally members of the European Parliament behind Ursula von der Leyen to get her confirmed next week.
The math is simple, the politics is complicated: To become Commission president, von der Leyen must win an absolute majority of Parliament in the vote scheduled for Tuesday evening in Strasbourg.
That means, in practical terms, the conservative German defense minister needs the complete support of MEPs from her own European People’s Party (EPP) — 182 votes — and slightly more than the same again, another 192 votes, to clinch the EU’s top job.
In political terms, however, MEPs and other officials say anything less than 400 votes, from mainstream, pro-EU parties, would be a catastrophic result, denying von der Leyen the durable majority and basic legitimacy needed to preside successfully over the EU for the next five years. In 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker was confirmed Commission president by a vote of 422 to 250 with 47 abstentions and some votes disqualified.
It will not be easy.
On an institutional level, the Parliament largely views the Council’s proposal as an affront. In selecting von der Leyen, the leaders discarded the Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, system, which had strong support across the Parliament.
That means many MEPs may have to be pushed to back von der Leyen by their heads of state and government, who in many cases also control their national parties.
Even the push for a swift vote, just two weeks after von der Leyen’s nomination, has come from the Council, Parliament officials said, despite their warnings that she needs more time to convince MEPs of her fitness for the post.
But it is unclear whether the national leaders will have the political muscle to twist the arms of their lawmakers in the European Parliament.
An analysis by POLITICO shows that in the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the centrist-liberal Renew Europe groups, there are a total of 86 MEPs that seem susceptible to pressure from their national leader because their party is currently serving as the main force in government.
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Even if all 86 supported von der Leyen along with the EPP, it would leave her with just 286 votes, 89 short of the roughly 374 required to make an absolute majority. The precise number of votes needed could change depending on the number of MEPs formally seated at the time of the vote.
And not all leaders on the European Council seemed inclined to whip MEPs on von der Leyen’s behalf. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa supported the leadership slate agreed by the European Council, but is not hugely enthusiastic about it.
The leader of the Portuguese Socialist delegation, Carlos Zorrinho, said in a statement to POLITICO that his MEPs were unimpressed by von der Leyen’s presentation on Wednesday. “The answers given by the candidate were far from what would be demandable, given that [she] strives for a favorable vote from those who are mandated to put in practice a progressive agenda in the EU,” Zorrinho said. He added, “In particular, the lack of commitment to the eurozone reform and to the convergence in the Multiannual Financial Framework is not acceptable.”
Many German Social Democrat MEPs have already said they will vote against von der Leyen. Although the Social Democrats are part of Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, they are furious that the Council did not nominate the center-left candidate for Commission president, Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands.
The leader of the S&D group, Spanish MEP Iratxe García, said she hopes to develop a common position by early next week. But given that the confirmation vote is a secret ballot, MEPs are much less likely to toe the party line than they might be if the vote were public.
A meeting on Thursday of the Parliament’s Conference of Presidents, a body composed of senior MEPs, decided to press ahead with the confirmation process — scheduling a full morning of debate in the plenary in Strasbourg, followed by a vote at 6 p.m. Officials said that the only possibility of postponement would be if von der Leyen herself requested it.
One veteran Parliament official said there is no point in waiting.
“Delaying the vote to September won’t change anything,” the official said. “No one will change their mind during summer and this is not a question of program. She was appointed randomly by the European Council so she will get a random vote in the European Parliament.”
Another senior Parliament official said the assembly, as of Thursday, appeared to be divided into thirds: for, against, and undecided. It is a remarkably precarious position for von der Leyen to be in just three working days before her confirmation vote.
Noting the complaints of many MEPs that von der Leyen had been too vague in her presentations so far, the senior Parliament official said that much would hinge on how she performs during the plenary debate on Tuesday morning. “If she is as weak as she has been so far, she won’t make it,” the official predicted.
If Parliament rejects von der Leyen’s nomination, the Council, in accordance with the EU treaties, has 30 days to propose a new nominee.
On Thursday, there were few signs of any large increase in support for von der Leyen.
The leader of Renew Europe, Dacian Cioloș, set out his liberal-centrist group’s demands for a number of assurances, including that its former candidate for Commission president, Margrethe Vestager, the current competition commissioner, be given a vice presidency equal to Timmermans, who is expected to stay on in the European Commission and retain his rank of first vice president. It was not clear that having two “first” vice presidents would be feasible.
Meanwhile, the leftist European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) bloc became the second political group, following the Greens on Wednesday, to declare formally its opposition to von der Leyen.
Like the S&D, the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group seems divided and undecided. Some ECR MEPs suggested they would oppose von der Leyen out of anger at pro-EU parties for blocking Euroskeptic MEPs from committee leadership positions.
The nationalist Identity and Democracy group, largely an alliance between Italy’s League party and France’s National Rally, is said to be debating whether to oppose von der Leyen or to announce its support for her — as a sort of poisoned kiss.
But if the German falls short on Tuesday, the European Council’s decision to nominate her and push for a quick vote may turn out to have been the most deadly moves of all.
Cornelius Hirsch, Ivo Oliveira and Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.