The EU’s top jobs might have been stitched up, but is Britain in any place to talk?

The EU’s top jobs haven’t been handled well, but MEPs get to vote on it next week, and Greens will be fighting these nominations.

Molly Scott Cato
10 July 2019, 12.17pm
Ursula Von Der Leyen and Jean CLaude Juncker, incoming and outgoing presidents of the European Commission
Nicolas Landemard/Zuma Press/PA Images

There are many things about the European institutions that I am very proud of. The way the top jobs are distributed in a stitch-up behind closed doors is not one of them. The recent appointments do at least meet one key criteria, that more of the senior posts are going to women.

Let’s begin with probably the best-known figure: Christine Lagarde. After seven years at the helm of the International Monetary Fund she is crossing the Atlantic to head up the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

This is in many ways the most worrying appointment, not only because of her strongly conservative and neoliberal policy bent, but simply because she is not qualified for the role. A lawyer rather than economist or banker, Lagarde has headed up the IMF as a political rather than technocratic figure. Before her appointment in 2012 she admitted: “I’m not the top-notch economist; I can understand what people talk about, I have enough common sense for that, and I’ve studied a bit of economics, but I’m not a super-duper economist.” So if and when the next Eurozone crisis hits, will she have the technical competence and financial expertise to inspire confidence in markets?

At the other end of the fame spectrum is Ursula von der Leyen, who is little known outside her own country. She is a German Defence Minister who has been recommended as European Council President. A close ally of Angela Merkel who has served in her Cabinet for many years, she has a track record that can be described as mixed at best. Last December, for example, she faced a parliamentary investigation over claims of nepotism in relation to her department’s awarding of contracts and close relationship with defence consultants. As Green co-President Philippe said, the only offer she makes to Greens is as a living example of the circular economy, where waste is turned into a new product, although we tend to favour upcycling whereas this looks like Merkel exporting an embarrassing minister to Brussels.

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And then there is the European Parliament. This time around the Parliament’s President became an after-thought in a game of four-dimensional chess where the good of the citizens of our continent was barely considered. Italian socialist and former newsreader, David Sassoli, was elected as Parliament President last week to serve for two and half years. He became the ‘compromise socialist’ following the rejection of socialist Frans Timmermans for the post of Commission President by Visegrad countries (Poland, Czechia, Hungary and Slovenia).

Timmermans is something of a bruiser who revived the socialists’ fortunes in the Netherlands and has been a strong leader for democratic Europe, opposing the rise of authoritarianism in Central Europe. Which is exactly why those countries wouldn’t accept him. Celebrating the fact that the Visegrad countries had successfully blocked Timmermans, a spokesperson for Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán said: “In our unity, the Visegrad Four have again demonstrated our growing strength and influence over the direction of the EU.” This should raise alarm bells since Orban’s nationalist government has politicised Hungary’s courts, media and universities, banning gender studies programmes and blocking the EU’s target for all member states to go carbon neutral by 2050.

Greens have always been strong supporters of the Spitzenkandidat system, where each political family puts forward a candidate who then engages in public debate to establish a profile. This way we are not presented with unknown faces in leadership roles. But none of these lead candidates has ended up in any of the top jobs, threatening a further distancing of European leadership from European citizens. Our own candidate for parliament president, Ska Keller, won 133 votes in the first round of voting, preventing an overall majority for Sassoli. With 74 MEPs in the Green/EFA group, there was clear support for Keller from other groups. Sadly, she lost in the second round despite a realisation from many that she was the stronger candidate.

So the EU has revealed its imperfections, but complaints by Brexiteers that they don’t’ get a chance to vote for these top jobs is either disinformation or ignorance since we elect our own Parliament President and have a veto over the Commission.

And rather than throwing stones from the side-lines, as Brexit Party MEPs do, we will actively fight these nominations. This week, as a member of the Green delegation, I will get to meet with Ursula von der Leyen who is reaching out for our support. This will be an opportunity to tell her what Greens expect to be on the agenda in the next five years, most notably tough action on climate change and a Green New Deal for Europe.

And next week, every MEP – even Brexit Party MEPs if they bother to turn up – will get a chance to vote for or against her, unlike our own Prime Minister who will be chosen only by one party.

As for the head of the Central Bank, she will be scrutinised by the economics committee where I sit, unlike the governor of the Bank of England who is appointed behind closed doors by the chancellor.

It is of course a favoured pastime of Brexit MEPs to spread lies about the EU. If they were honest, they would acknowledge, however imperfect, the EU appointment systems are more democratic than those in our own system.

And despite being the biggest losers in terms of political power, Greens remain committed both to the European project and to building on our advances in Europe. We are in government in three countries (Finland, Sweden and Luxembourg) and lead the polls in a third (Germany). The Greens/EFA group increased their number of MEPs from 50 to 74 – making them the fourth largest group. Given these advances, and the fact that the climate emergency was a clear motivation to vote Green, we could reasonably have expected that a Green politician would get the Climate Action and Energy portfolio. The decision by the big three to block us from any real power is an insult to the millions of people across Europe - especially young people - who voted for change and for hope back in May.

As Greens we will continue to reach out to the other main groups to try to build a strong pro-European majority to support democratic standards and resist the rise of the far right. We will continue to challenge vested interests, stand in solidarity with the poor, with migrants, with all those who are left out of the European dream, and of course for our climate and for the planet we all share. But we will also be a forceful opposition to the three groups in the parliament who preferred to govern alone than to accept our radical critique of business as usual.

Molly Scott Cato is Green Party MEP for the South West of England

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