The new European Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen received overwhelming support from the European Parliament on Wednesday. Born of French President Emmanuel Macron’s improvisation and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s acquiescence, the commission will have to navigate the inclement waters of the Franco-German relationship.
In July, Macron boldly proposed von der Leyen for the commission presidency over the party candidates who had campaigned for the job. Merkel assented, though she’d backed the political process: None of the campaigning candidates appeared capable of commanding a majority in the parliament. That body took it as a slight, and von der Leyen was approved only by a thin margin. Legislators then took barely veiled revenge on Macron by rejecting his chosen candidate for France’s European commissioner, Sylvie Goulard. Macron was forced to name tech businessman and former minister Thierry Breton instead, who managed to squeak by.
After the parliament spent weeks interviewing proposed commissioners and rejecting some — a demonstration to von der Leyen that she wasn’t getting a free pass — it was finally ready on Wednesday to let her and the commissioners take office, a month later than previously scheduled. This doesn’t mean it won’t be a hurdle for von der Leyen going forward. The Greens, who abstained during the confirmation vote, will always demand more from the commission, and keeping the other centrist factions satisfied won’t be a breeze given the growing rift between the center-left and the center-right even in Germany, where they govern together.
But the von der Leyen commission will probably have a bigger problem with the European Council, comprised of national leaders, than with the parliament. There, France and Germany, the two countries meant to take the EU forward after Brexit, have been at loggerheads lately. Macron has blocked the opening of accession talks with potential new EU members, Albania and North Macedonia, and pushed a plan to make Europe militarily more independent from the U.S. Germany disagrees on both counts. On Wednesday, Merkel responded forcefully to Macron’s criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as undergoing “brain death.” She said to the German parliament: “Europe cannot currently defend itself alone, we are dependent on this transatlantic alliance and that’s why it’s right for us to work for this alliance and take on more responsibility.”
Macron’s open bid for sole leadership in Europe is an irritant to Germans. According to a recent article in the New York Times, at a recent dinner to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel told Macron she was “tired of picking up the pieces” after his attempts at creative disruption. “I have to glue together the cups you have broken so that we can then sit down and have a cup of tea together,” Merkel reportedly said.
This marks a low point in what generally has been a constructive relationship. In such a situation, von der Leyen’s commission faces the likelihood of deadlock in the European Council on its key proposals. France and Germany will each try to use the commission’s power to draft policies, and the large workforce that comes with that power, to back up their positions — that is, to satisfy Macron’s impatience and Merkel's compromise-seeking caution.
Merkel, of course, has promised to retire from politics in 2021 — but a more assertive German leader probably would clash even more energetically with Macron.
In such a situation, the sheer balance of nationalities in key staff positions can be important. On Wednesday, Politico’s Brussels Playbook, a well-informed newsletter about EU politics, reported that five commissioners’ heads of cabinet (or chiefs of staff) — including Breton's — will be German, and not one will be French. Breton hasn’t officially picked his head of cabinet yet, but even if the Politico report on him proves false, the balance would appear troubling for Macron. The senior staff positions are extremely powerful in EU decision-making, and if there's a strong German influence on the chief-of-staff level, it won’t be easy for Macron to push his proposals.
On the other hand, as things stand today, France has a disproportionately large number of senior EU bureaucrats and Germany a disproportionately small one. Of the 30 officials holding the top administrative grade, AD 16, five are French and only two German. More generally, 12.8% of the 2,600 officials in the top four grades are French and 12.6% are German, even though, based on the countries’ populations, Germany’s quota should be higher and France’s lower.
A balance of influence is difficult to achieve in the EU when there’s little agreement on key issues, such as the bloc’s future geopolitical role, its adherence to the transatlantic alliance, and key expansion and immigration policies. A lack of broad agreement and personal harmony among leaders turns the complex bureaucratic and inter-institutional processes into a series of mini-battles. Macron may have helped von der Leyen into the top EU job, but he appears intent on making it impossible for her to do anything meaningful as he keeps trying Merkel’s patience with his escapades.