Ursula von der Leyen loves horses, but political horse-trading or show-jumping? Not so much.
Since her confirmation by a narrow vote in the European Parliament in July, the European Commission’s president-elect — a former German defense minister and close ally of Angela Merkel — has hunkered down with a small coterie of aides to prepare her five-year term, appearing little in public and saying even less.
Her low profile has prompted some Commission officials and others in the Brussels Bubble to accuse von der Leyen of adopting a bunker mentality, rather than building bridges with the organization she will soon run, as well as diplomats and MEPs. Officials close to her transition team say such criticism is unfounded and stems from the inevitable insecurity that grips any large organization during a change of leadership.
With the exception of one marathon press conference in early September to announce the nominees for her College of Commissioners and their roles, von der Leyen has largely stayed under the radar — even when one of her chosen portfolio titles, a vice presidency for “protecting our European way of life,” was criticized as a dog whistle to the far right. She even kept her counsel after French President Emmanuel Macron last week accused her of misleading him about the prospects of his Commission nominee, Sylvie Goulard, who was rejected by MEPs over ethical concerns, setting off what Paris called an “institutional crisis.”
The Parliament’s rejection of Goulard — whom Macron had envisioned as a sort of super-commissioner overseeing the EU’s internal market and industrial policy — as well as the Romanian and Hungarian nominees, means von der Leyen will be in limbo beyond her scheduled start date of November 1. She now looks likely to take office on December 2 at the earliest — and some EU diplomats argue that she’ll begin as the weakest Commission president in a generation, compounding an impression created by her status as the first EU chief in 25 years not to have served as a head of government.
“If she was weak before,” one diplomat said after Macron castigated her over Goulard’s rejection, “can you imagine how weak she is now?
Von der Leyen’s stealth approach leads some Commission insiders to depict her as isolated, struggling to find her footing, “paranoid” about the continuing influence of former Secretary-General Martin Selmayr — whom she forced out to win her own confirmation in Parliament — and distrustful of her executive vice presidents, especially Frans Timmermans, a Dutchman who campaigned for the Commission presidency for the Party of European Socialists.
Timmermans and his supporters make no secret of their view that he was robbed of the presidency by Merkel, Macron and other national leaders on the European Council. They also complain that von der Leyen undermined a carefully constructed triumvirate proposed by the Council by unexpectedly elevating a fellow member of the conservative European People’s Party, Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis, to a third “executive vice presidency” along with Timmermans and the Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager.
Other critics say von der Leyen has been slow to assemble her team, relying mainly on two trusted aides she brought with her from Berlin, Bjoern Seibert and Jens Flosdorff, and the acting secretary-general, Ilze Juhansone, a former Latvian ambassador to the EU who was elevated after Selmayr’s resignation.
Von der Leyen has yet to formally name a chief of staff, and has announced only two hires: Eric Mamer, a veteran French official, to serve as her chief spokesman; and Dana Spinant, who will be Mamer’s deputy. Meanwhile, Juhansone, acting at Seibert’s behest, has effectively put a stop to any hiring for senior positions throughout the Commission’s directorates general.
“The combination of no secretary-general, a skeleton Commission service, a head of the president’s cabinet with no Brussels experience and paranoid tendencies, plus all these new commissioners and three experienced party-political first executive vice presidents, looks like a perfect storm,” said one senior Commission official.
But an official close to the transition said halting the hiring process was a no-brainer. “How do you know who is any good?” the official said. “How do you know who can be trusted?”
‘Everybody is nervous’
With departing commissioners and their Cabinet chiefs intent on finding new posts for their favored personnel, transition officials said von der Leyen’s team had no choice but to put a halt to hiring, so that they could vet candidates and make sure officials hired for top jobs fit with her priorities. In von der Leyen’s vision of a “geopolitical Commission,” the portfolios of many commissioners will overlap by design, which will require teamwork but may also raise the risk of internal conflict.
“Everybody is waiting, everybody is nervous,” said a senior aide to an outgoing commissioner, confirming that many veteran officials were anxious about where they might land in the new Commission. “Some people have been interviewed,” the aide said. “Many have not.”
Another Commission official said some of the criticism was just sour grapes.
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“There has been some frustration in the Commission because she has rejected some good people for her team,” this official said. “She’s sticking to the faithful lieutenants she brought from Berlin. There are many pitfalls here in town. Some … are questioning whether those people know how to navigate around them.”
The official close to the transition also played down talk of the lingering influence of Selmayr, the close confidant of outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with a Machiavellian reputation. He is about to resurface as the EU representative in Austria, though the official also hinted that Selmayr is not entirely out of mind, saying: “Probably he is still directing some things with a remote control from Vienna.”
Officials close to von der Leyen camp questioned the accuracy of depictions that she was isolated, noting that she is meeting weekly with Juncker, even more frequently with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, as well as with national leaders and key ministers across Europe.
Von der Leyen’s supporters described comparisons to Juncker’s transition as unfair, given that she arrived as an outsider, while Juncker’s campaign staff when he ran for the top job in 2014 was comprised largely of Commission insiders led by Selmayr.
Juncker, a conservative like von der Leyen, enjoyed a close friendship with his main Socialist rival, Martin Schulz, who after the 2014 European election returned to his post as Parliament president. That allowed the pair to form a “grand coalition” that ensured a majority for Juncker’s policy priorities.
By contrast, von der Leyen must grapple with a more diverse and divided Parliament with no majority for the conservatives and Socialists, requiring her to work with the liberal Renew Europe and the Greens. Where Schulz could quickly give Juncker a read on the pulse of Parliament, von der Leyen’s aides complain that they need to consult a half-dozen MEPs to get a sense of the mood in Renew Europe alone.
Still, even if von der Leyen faces a challenging political landscape, some Commission insiders said that at her current pace it would likely take until next spring before her team was fully in gear — especially given the delay in confirming the final three commissioners and a likely December 1 start, only to be interrupted shortly after by the Christmas holiday.
“This means the von der Leyen Commission will not be operationally effective until at least next Easter. And in the meantime, the Commission will be incredibly weak,” the senior Commission official said.
Supporters of von der Leyen argued that she has to move judiciously, while critics can carp loudly from the sidelines. They rejected assertions that she should have lobbied more proactively for the failed Commission nominees in Parliament, contending that it would have jeopardized her credibility as an honest broker among the different political groups and her effort to show respect for Parliament’s institutional role.
Von der Leyen’s allies said Macron had clearly miscalculated in pushing the nomination of Goulard, and that she would not take the bait by responding to his public lashing out. Von der Leyen met with Macron in Paris on Monday, and while she posted a picture of them together walking on the crimson and gold steps at Elysée Palace, she characteristically did not issue any statement. A spokesman said it was a “good and constructive conversation” that lasted about an hour, in a “very good atmosphere.”
But by the end of the meeting, Macron had still not put forward a new nominee, suggesting the Goulard mess was not yet fully resolved and leaving a crucial component of von der Leyen’s College of Commissioners still missing.
Some EU officials and diplomats more skeptical of the president-elect see signs that her low-profile approach may continue after she takes office. This would be in keeping with the way she operated in Berlin as defense minister, and prior to that as labor minister and as family affairs minister, they said.
In Germany, von der Leyen relied on a tight circle of closely trusted aides, and showed little interest in interacting with journalists, reinforcing her upper-class, aloof image, they said. Expectations that she will not change her habits in Brussels were reinforced by news that she plans to sleep in small living quarters next to her office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont, the Commission HQ — just as she did in Berlin.
However, von der Leyen did venture out of her small suite of transition offices this week to attend the first meeting of the European Parliament’s “Horse Group” organized by MEPs who, like the president-elect, are equestrians. Von der Leyen said she had considered canceling the meeting because of a surprisingly busy agenda — but decided that outreach to members of Parliament was crucial.
“I wanted to keep this meeting because I think it is important to get in touch with all of you as I’m speaking to different groups within the Parliament,” she said.
“Of course you all know that I am passionate … on the topic of horses,” she told the MEPs, adding that riding was a symbol “for prosperity,” “for a sustainable world” for “integrity” and “unity of mankind and animals.”
Some MEPs and Parliament officials have said similar outreach — before and during the recent confirmation process — might have helped save Goulard’s nomination.
In any event, there’s an undoubtedly useful lesson in horseback riding for anyone serving as Commission president: First and foremost it’s all about staying in the saddle.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Maïa de la Baume and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.