The Malta Independent 18 September 2019, Wednesday

Losing out in Brussels

Noel Grima Sunday, 7 July 2019, 08:44 Last update: about 3 months ago

It has been a memorable, momentous week in the EU and, even so, the final outcome is not over yet.

As a country, we are parched of real information in real time of what is happening where it matters to us and all we get are international feeds with their own biases. All through last week we had no idea what was happening, apart from those few who were following websites such as Politico.eu. Thus we missed out on a really engrossing background.

To summarise a bit: before last week, the accepted template was what is called the ‘spitzenkandidat’ method – that the candidate from the party that gets the most votes in the European Parliament election gets to be the President of the Commission. Thus we had Manfred Weber representing the EPP, Frans Timmermans representing the PES and others.

But when the leaders of the bigger countries found themselves in Osaka, Japan, last weekend, they had a lot of meetings on the side. Weber had already been ruled out by Macron’s forthright opposition. So the meetings at Osaka came up with an alternative proposal: Timmermans to be President of the Commission.

Angela Merkel thus turned up at the Brussels summit and expected the plan to be approved. But she faced huge opposition from the Visegrad 4 – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – and also from Bulgaria and Croatia.

The rules of selecting the Head of the Commission are very strict and based on a mathematical formula involving the population of each country. The Visegrad 4 argued that the President of the Commission had to come from the EPP group, since this had won the election, and Timmermans could not be selected instead.

So through the night – in the longest summit in EU history – the leaders looked around to see if they could come up with an acceptable name. Michel Barnier was considered and then dropped. So too was Margarethe Vestager, a Commissioner in the last Commission whose insistence on the rule of law had made enemies for her in Hungary and Poland.

So after a brief night’s rest, Ursula Von der Leyden, a gynaecologist and mother of seven children, and Minister of Defence in the German government, was proposed and later accepted.

That does not automatically make her the new President of the Commission: she still has to be approved by the European Parliament. The sudden election of David Sassoli is a possible pointer, but Von der Leyden needs more than the votes he got to be elected on 15 July.

Former EP president, Socialist Martin Schultz, was quite disparaging in her regard. Many – both in the Socialist group and even in her Christian Democrat one – consider her a weak, if not the weakest, member of the German Cabinet. The German army is in a shambles (not just because of her). President Trump has often condemned the low amount of funding that Germany allocates for the army and claimed that Germany is relying too much on US spending. Besides, she is being investigated for corruption charges, which she denies, and – earlier on – faced charges of plagiarism in her doctoral thesis.

After the turmoil was over, the usual un-attributable whispers here in Malta claimed that Joseph Muscat had just missed getting a European position in the reshuffle. This came as a huge surprise to those who, like me, had been following the evolution of the process because – to my knowledge –in no website or report had Muscat been mentioned. The only evidence, if one can call it that, was in an unattributed quote on the front page of L-Orizzont that said Muscat had been mentioned as a possible President of the Council in a list drawn up by Macron.

I saw – in a tweet – a photograph of Muscat and his advisors sitting on their own in a room, as in a wake. Or, as the Italians say, ‘Chi entra Papa in conclave, esce cardinale’.

[email protected]

  • don't miss