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Who would have guessed that a month and a half after Britain finally left the European Single Market and Customs Union that it would be the European Commission President who is under the most pressure with some calls for her to resign? Or that German press could be leading with headlines like “the best advert for Brexit”?

The EU’s vaccine debacle has certainly become the main international story which has led to a renewed focus on the politician who heads Europe’s executive, Ursula von der Leyen, with criticism of her suitability from before she even gained Europe’s highest office becoming more prominently shared in recent weeks. Ursula von der Leyen did not get the job as the result of an election: At the EU elections she was not even a candidate let alone lead spitzenkandidaten.

Undeniably much of the criticism that Brexiteers have levelled against the EU institutions – its sclerotic nature, the lack of democratic pressures, the lack of accountability and the lack of feedback have had their part to play in the EU mistakenly prioritising price in its negotiations for vaccines over the prompt deployment of vaccines as other politicians worried what their electorate would think have done. When arch Europeans like Guy Verhofstadt are calling the situation a “fiasco” then there is a requirement to think about why it has happened.

Having said that though, healthcare is not a core EU competence – it is primarily a national competence.  British Prime Ministers at all times are aware that they must alway answer to the electorate about the fate of the NHS, it is not the primary responsibility people expect from the European Union.  The decision to give responsibility for vaccine procurement to the Commission was not inevitable; it was a choice the national leaders willingly made. An elected national politician answerable to their nation’s electorate for their nation’s healthcare can and should appreciate the urgent nature of the pandemic and why speed is of the essence.

Von der Leyen was not put in place because she was a skilled politician or a natural leader who could answer to and face the electorate – but rather because by process of elimination she was the least objectionable person left after a series of elimination of those who had been put forward before her. It is hard to imagine von der Leyen heading an election campaign or for example winning a US style primary, but whatever skills she lacks in other departments, she appears from the outside good at making connections and keeping others reasonably content with her.

Her skills were rather useful recently. When the Brexit talks reached a crunch point in 2019 it was bilateral talks in the Wirral between Johnson and Varadkar that unlocked a path forward. In 2020 there were no bilateral talks between Johnson and Macron or any others objecting to Britain’s proposals occurred, instead it was bilateral talks between Johnson and von der Leyen that worked to break the impasse. One way or another von der Leyen was an able conduit to shape the negotiations between 27 into 1, allowing her to make serious concessions in the talks without another Council meeting occurring which the Council could then accept. As President she knew she needed to keep the 27 heads of government on side but was not constrained to a predetermined “negotiating mandate” in the same way Barnier was. Von der Leyen deserves criticism for her vaccine failure but deserves praise for the adroit way she handled those talks which were less than two months ago now.

It is noteworthy that there are virtually always markets in place on who will be the next Prime Minister, next [US or French] President or next German Chancellor but markets on who will be the next EU Commission President are much rarer.  This despite the Commission President theoretically holding an equally significant role.

Ultimately the distinction between von der Leyen and Johnson – or Biden, Macron, Merkel or Netanyahu or any other national leader – is that national leaders at elections tend to go to the electorate with pledges or a general philosophy for how they will run their competences but the European Union isn’t a democracy or a fully federal state (yet). It remains still a collective of 27 so rather than an elected leader with their own agenda the Commission President remains a hybrid of a head of the executive but also a diplomat between the 27 member states.

As a diplomat between the 27 von der Leyen seems reasonably suitable to her job – but for swift moving action in a crisis or for general democratic accountability that is not generally what the head of an executive should be. To quote from the Big Bang Theory featuring Stephen Hawking, when Sheldon is challenged to praise engineer Howard “I have never said you are not good at what you do. It’s just that what you do is not worth doing.”

Europe as a potential federation is still evolving and will in years to come evolve without the United Kingdom. How they do so is up to them but as some friendly advice from someone who wishes to have a successful EU on our doorstep I would say that the EU has a lot of centralised powers but little in the way of centralised democracy to control how those powers are wielded. Inevitably a directly elected Commission President would have a mandate of their own and be able to cut out the sclerosis and move quickly but it will be a major centralisation away from the member states.

On the other hand if centralisation is not desired then the powers should not be held by Europe and should be devolved back to the elected member states to implement in a way that befits their populace. The ultimate solution to not wanting centralisation is to keep powers at a devolved level, it is not to centralise those powers but then have no accountability on how they are exercised. To maintain democratic accountability eventually a choice between elections with more centralisation, or devolution back to national governments needs to eventually occur.

If in the future we can routinely bet on (and thus have threads discussing) the candidates to become next Commission President at the following election, that will be the day the European Union comes of age.

Philip Thompson

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