Given all the energy and words spent on Europe in both Britain and the Labour movement, it’s often depressing how little attention either pays to what is actually going on in the EU. Not so elsewhere. On Tuesday afternoon, my phone buzzed incessantly with desperate messages from across the German left. What on earth was the European Parliamentary Labour Party doing? Richard Corbett MEP, leader of the Labour group in Strasbourg, appeared to be endorsing Ursula von der Leyen – a German minister from the conservative CDU – as President of the European Commission.
My German friends were appalled. For so many of them, Labour has been a beacon of hope since Jeremy Corbyn’s election in 2015, yet now they felt betrayed. Whether from the SPD, Die Linke or the Greens, German left MEPs had been telling their colleagues that Von der Leyen was completely unacceptable. Why wasn’t Labour listening?
In Germany, von der Leyen is toxic. Her stint as defence minister has been a disaster. She has overseen massive procurement overspends. She has blown €600m on management consultants in shady deals without proper tendering – a scandal now subject to an ongoing parliamentary enquiry. Alarmingly, she’s failed to come up with any effective response whatsoever to the growth of underground extreme-right terror cells among German military personnel and reservists.
As such, von der Leyen was one of the greatest political liabilities in Angela Merkel’s cabinet. And now, she has been quietly disposed of – by being given the top job in Brussels. In a Europe threatened by the far right, and suffering from accusations of graft and mismanagement, it’s hard to think of a worse choice.
It’s not just von der Leyen’s personal unsuitability that has people’s backs up, but also the way in which she has come to the job. Democratic accountability in Europe is disturbingly weak. Power lies overwhelmingly with the European Council, where national leaders meet behind closed doors. With no right to initiate legislation or raise taxes, the European parliament has fought long and hard for any kind of say, as the democratic representative of Europe’s citizens, in key personnel decisions.
It’s not much, but the best the parliament had been able to achieve to this end so far was the Spitzenkandidat system, under which it solemnly vowed not to approve any President of the European Commission who had not stood in the foregoing European election as the leader of one of the parliament’s party groups. At least that way, the argument went, Europe’s highest executive would have been subject to direct democratic scrutiny by the electorate.
This principle has now been thrown under a bus. Von der Leyen did not stand in the European election, was not the leader of any parliamentary group, and indeed was only parachuted in two weeks ago from Berlin after a backroom deal between heads of government. Having rejected the first two Spitzenkandidaten out of hand, and before MEPs had a chance to propose alternatives (most had not even got their new offices), government heads preferred to push through their own compromise candidate rather than risk any unforeseen outbreak of democracy in the European parliament. (The latter could have seen the job going to the left-leaning liberal Margarete Vestager, scourge of Google, Amazon and Apple as the Competition Commissar in the previous Commission).
Why, then, did the parliament (narrowly) vote for von der Leyen? Some of the press are attempting to spin her win as a victory for pro-European forces against populists and Eurosceptics. This blatant falsehood bears no scrutiny whatsoever, given her support from the Polish PiS party, the Hungarian Fidesz and the Italian Cinque Stelle, which all fall neatly into the populist-Eurosceptic bracket. And who nominated von der Leyen in the first place? None other than Fidesz’s refugee-hating, authoritarian, nationalist Prime Minister of Hungary (and proud purveyor of antisemitic Soros tropes) Viktor Orbán.
Who else voted for her? Firstly, the conservative EPP group. They are from the right, like von der Leyen herself, and have never paid more than lip service to the cause of European democracy, so no big surprises there. Secondly, the liberal Renew Europe (formerly ALDE) group. In the past, the Liberals have been passionate defenders of European democracy and the rights of the parliament. When it came to the crunch, though, they threw it all overboard. (Anyone who voted Lib Dem in the European election: if you thought you were voting ‘for Europe’, think again.)
But thirdly, and most shamefully, the majority of the Socialists & Democrats group – the centre-left grouping that includes Labour MEPs. The final vote was conducted by a secret ballot, and there are certainly honourable exceptions, including all German SPD MEPs and some of Labour’s better MEPs. But officially, both the S&D group and the European Parliamentary Labour Party were onside.
Why did they come round? EPLP leader Richard Corbett’s speech emphasised the compromises that von der Leyen had promised – most of all, the possibility of postponing a Brexit end date deadline (not that the prospect of more Brexit paralysis in Westminster will fill anyone with joy). Von der Leyen’s speech in Strasbourg before did indeed hit more progressive notes than had been expected – but was all the more transparent for doing so. Turning on a dime to say whatever is necessary to get elected is hardly a mark of political authenticity.
By accepting the vaguest of progressive promises from a conservative politician who has spent her lifetime on the right, rather than standing in solidarity with comrades from the left for a democratically legitimate candidate who will fight for a transformed Europe, Corbett has embarrassed our movement. Remain and reform sounds great, but it must be remain and reform – not remain and fudge. Not remain and crumble. Not remain and compromise with a moribund Brussels neoliberal consensus.
For as long as there have been incoming Commission Presidents, there have been promises of reform. And look where we have got so far: climate injustice, spiralling inequality, crass economic imbalance, millions of unemployed, a huge democratic deficit, exploitative trade, rampant corporate lobbyism, thousands of desperate migrants drowning in a militarised Mediterranean and an ingrained Brussels culture of the backroom deal. Anyone who believes that things will be better at the end of von der Leyen’s presidency hasn’t been paying attention.
But it’s here, surely, that we can see a way forward to finally overcome the appalling divisions that Brexit has sown. Whether Leave or Remain, we are all internationalists: none of us are indifferent to injustice simply because it takes place beyond our borders. In or out, we need a democratic socialist Europe for the many, not the few. Should Labour end up campaigning to remain, it must also campaign not to submit to Europe as it is – but to change it root and branch.