Von der Leyen’s Heat Level: A blazing movement without apologising

  • + Von der Leyen featured in an election video supporting Croatian conservative party.
  • + The European Commission admits that mistakes were made, but did not apologise.
  • + MEPs and other European representatives are complaining about the lack of neutrality of the EC President.
Source: European Commission

Why is Von der Leyen’s heat level blazing? 

Answer: The EC President is doing what she wants, arising controversy but not apologising for it. 

On the 5th of July, the Croatian elections took place. The Conservative Prime Minister, Andrej Plenković, obtained a comfortable victory at the polls that will allow him to continue governing in a coalition. The fact that Plenković, from the HDZ party, has been re-elected after the impact of the pandemic in his country has not been the subject of news. The news comes from the fact that, for his election campaign, the Prime Minister requested the support of several European representatives of the EPP – European People’s Party – in an electoral video. Among the people in this video, we find Ursula von der Leyen, in the corridors of Berlaymont, with the EU flag in the background. On the video can be seen Von der Leyen saying the HDZ election slogan “safe Croatia” in Croatian.

The explicit support of a member of the European Commission, and her interference in a national election, is against the code of conduct of the institution. Article 9.3 of this Code of Conduct states the following: “members shall abstain from making public statements or interventions on behalf of any political party or organisation of the social partners of which they are members”. This precept would not be violated if the statement is made as an official opinion. However, the video in which Von der Leyen appears only highlights her position as President of the Commission.

After the publication of the video, the atmosphere has become heated on Twitter. The European Commission’s spokesman stated that the President was speaking in her personal capacity and not representing her charge, and regretted that this was not clear in the final version of the video. 

Von der Leyen, a politician who is surrounded by a team of highly qualified professionals, knew that this video supporting the Croatian Prime Minister would arouse controversy. And, yet, she did it. She has not apologised for it but has instead defended her right to express her political views while respecting the code of conduct. 

However, the Commission has recognised that mistakes have been made, and what is important is that these mistakes are not repeated.

Who is changing Von der Leyen’s temperature? 

Answer: It seems that none was able to stop her from doing what she thought was right. In any case, her support in the EU Parliament has been damaged.

While aware of the controversy her actions could generate, Von der Leyen decided to take a stand on Andrej’s conservative party’s election video. Nobody stopped her actions. Nevertheless, it may have consequences for her term of office. 

This video has been forwarded as a complaint to the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly by the non-profit organisation The Good Lobby. 

Besides, the complaints of the socialist and liberal groups in the European Parliament have been heard. The Socialist group’s President, Iratxe García, was among the first to recriminate Von der Leyen’s attitude. Amongst the members of Renew Europe, there has also been a lot of criticism of the video. The relevance of the above is that Von der Leyen has an accountability duty towards the EU Parliament. Furthermore, she needs the support of the MEPs to pass any legislation her Commission initiates. Indeed, a lack of support in the Parliament might be translated into a decrease of her political power.

However, these are decisive times when the Recovery Fund for Europe is being negotiated, before the summit on the 17th  and 18th of July, when decisions will be taken. Therefore, the scandal that might have been generated by Von der Leyen’s decision will not lead to the break-up of political alliances as drastically as might have been expected. Everything is therefore awaiting Emilly O’Reilly’s verdict, which could lead to a motion of no confidence. 

What is driving Von der Leyen?

Answer: The President believes that she was in a position to take a personal stand in the Croatian elections and that there was no breach of the Commission’s code in this regard.

Von der Leyen believes that the members of her Commission should be free to lead an active political life, alluding to the fact that this is good for European democracy. That is, however, provided that the code of conduct of the collegial institution is respected. 

President Von der Leyen thus makes it clear that in her opinion, she was not taking any negligent action when she decided to take sides in the Croatian elections. According to her, she did so in a personal capacity. 

During her political life, Von der Leyen has opted for what she considered to be the right thing to do, always within the limits of her office. Therefore, she established policies beneficial to women when she was Minister of Defence, as well as voted for equal sex marriage and equal adoption rights even though Merkel, her superior, voted against both decisions. 

In the media, she has been described as someone who is not afraid to divide opinion as long as the measures she believes in are carried out. We are now faced with the case. Von der Leyen has come to the European Commission to make her mark. Despite playing by the range of European rules and regulations, she is prepared to change the ways of her predecessors, such as Juncker. 

Despite this bold step in her position in the Commission, she is aware that in order to move her legislative proposals forward, she needs the support of socialists and liberals in Parliament. It is, therefore, to be hoped that, despite having accepted that mistakes were made in not making it clear that a personal opinion was involved, she may come to apologise later on, as she has done on previous occasions.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: There is a need for stability in the European Commission in times of external challenges, as well as for our leaders to abide by codes of conduct.

Von der Leyen’s behaviour would not have been as surprising if we were talking about other world leaders who tend to legislate in their favour or omit the existence of codes of conduct. But we are in Europe, specifically in the European Union, an institution that guarantees democracy and human rights. At a time when several crises have overlapped, the last thing that citizens need is a destabilisation of their institutions. This is what Von der Leyen’s conduct may lead to if the European Ombudsman rules that her participation in the video breaks her ethical obligations as a member of the European Commission. 

While the impact of Von der Leyen’s action may not go beyond a few headlines in the press, Europe’s citizens deserve exemplary behaviour from their political leaders. This includes the President of the Commission. The balance of political forces in the EU, and the behaviour of its leaders, affect European citizens almost entirely. A return to the rhetoric of power games is the last thing Europe needs today. So, let us hope that this election video with the Berlaymont background will remain an exception, and that unity in the recovery of our territory will prevail.

Claudia María Yáñez Sangil

Research and Analysis Intern