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“GEWÄHLT ist gewählt und Mehrheit ist Mehrheit,” goes a saying in German politics coined by Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor: “elected is elected and a majority is a majority”. The term could become Ursula von der Leyen’s new mantra. On the evening of July 16th the German defence minister was elected the new president of the European Commission by the European Parliament. She won 383 of the 733 votes cast, clearing the margin for an absolute majority by just nine votes, and will thus become the first ever woman president of the EU’s executive when Jean-Claude Juncker steps down at the end of October.
It was a much narrower victory than many had expected. Mrs von der Leyen began the day with a competent and policy-rich speech aimed particularly at the centre and centre-left of the parliament, which is beginning its new term after the European election in May. She wooed liberals with talk of an artificial-intelligence strategy and the completion of the EU’s capital-markets union, socialists with a commitment to unemployment reinsurance and minimum wages, and greens with pledges of a Green Deal and more ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. There were other proposals appealing across the pro-European centre, for those who might have dismissed her as a dry, back-room politician: a right of legislative initiative for the European Parliament (that right rests in the commission), accelerated improvements on border controls, a shift away from unanimity requirements on foreign policy and a new mechanism for tackling rule-of-law infringements. The goal was clear: Mrs von der Leyen wanted to be elected with a broad “grand coalition” of the political mainstream. That should have been easy. Her own centre-right block, the liberals, the socialists and the greens together hold 518 of the parliament’s 751 seats.
But it was not. The centre-right EPP group and the liberals were, it is true, broadly supportive. Under a deal done by national leaders in a marathon European Council summit culminating on July 2nd, Mrs von der Leyen would be nominated for the commission, Charles Michel, a liberal, to the European Council’s own presidency and Josep Borrell, a socialist, to the role of high representative for foreign policy—with Christine Lagarde, the French head of the IMF, taking charge at the European Central Bank. But plenty of greens and socialists (led by contingents from Germany itself) objected that this was a stitch-up, that it was unfair on the left and that it contravened a post-2014 convention whereby a party-political “lead candidate” should win a mandate at the European election to become commission president. That raised the spectre of Mrs von der Leyen owing her majority to right-wing populists from outside the mainstream, some of whom backed her to avoid getting Frans Timmermans, the socialists’ preferred choice.
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