EU takes another lurch away from democracy while Love Island, Boris and Trump drive us to distraction

The elevation of Ursula von der Leyen this week was a worrying development for the EU, argues John Dolan
EU takes another lurch away from democracy while Love Island, Boris and Trump drive us to distraction
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, hands over a bunch of flowers to the new elected European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

A PITHY quote by English soccer-star-turned-€1.8million-a-year-TV-presenter Gary Lineker came to my mind this week.

The former striker, who had first-hand experience of German domination on the field of play, once joked: “Football is a simple game — 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”

His words came back to me when the next European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, was appointed to the most powerful role in continental — and arguably Irish — politics.

To re-coin the phrase: The European Union is a simple game — 751 MEPs are elected by voters, they have absolutely no say on who will be the Commission President and at the end, the Germans always win.

In this case, Ms von der Leyen.

Did you know how she landed the plum job? Or were you perhaps distracted by the media’s usual outpourings of rage and counter-rage surrounding those blonde bombshells Donald Trump and Boris Johnson... not to mention the blonde bombshells (male and female) on Love Island.

Allow me to fill you in.

The Commission is the real seat of power in the EU — it is the only body that can propose laws and is responsible for setting the policy agenda and determining the legislative proposals. Its President stands for a five-year term, so is at the heart of decision-making for the bloc of around half a billion people for half a decade.

There have been accusations down the years that the Commission is undemocratic — claims which are usually dismissed by the Europhiles among us on the grounds that the elected MEPs have a hand in who runs the Commission.

Ah. That’s how the process should work.

In 2019, though, sadly not.

The newly-elected 751 MEPs in the European Parliament are grouped together into various parties, and the largest of these gets to propose the candidate for the role of President of the European Commission.

That would at least see some sort of democracy in action — a link between who you voted for in Ireland South and the ultimate powerbroker in Brussels. True, it’s a tenuous enough thread, and puts the electorate at a remove far away from the levers of power, but this was democracy in action in the EU, we were told.

Sadly, this year, the parties of the EU parliament, representing the people we voted in across the continent, found that democracy was closed.

The rulers of the EU countries, including our own Leo Varadkar, decided their democratic choice for President was not up to scratch. Thanks, but no thanks.

So, like some kind of Communist Politburo, they held a secret meeting and simply kicked out the contenders presented by the MEPs and chose their own one. Simples!

Now, some people will make the case that this is still a form of democracy: The leaders of the EU countries are elected, after all — although Leo has never won an election as Taoiseach — just like the MEPs, so... it’s all good!

Not really.

What’s the point of electing MEPs if they don’t get a say in who is running their show? What’s the point in MEPs grouping into parties if their largest one has to kowtow to the leaders of the EU countries?

This shadowy way of putting forward the EU Commission President smacks of that old joke: These are my principles... but if you don’t like them I have others!

It also means that the real powerbrokers of Brussels will always be Germany and France, since when the leaders of the EU nation states are locked together in a room, those two countries will always hold sway.

It’s true that the MEPs then got to rubber-stamp Ms von der Leyen, but as UK Brexiteer Nigel Farage pointed out: “In an election, having a choice of one is hardly an open democratic choice, it’s a farce. It was all stitched up.”

Even with the stitch-up, it was a close-run thing; the German Defence Minister squeaked home by 383 votes to 327, just nine votes more than she required. If it had been a vote in favour of Brexit, the calls for a re-run would have been deafening!

Her narrow victory played into the hands of those, like Farage, who have long accused the EU of being undemocratic and unaccountable. It will also feed claims from the same groups that the EU is fractured, since so many MEPs voted against Ms von der Leyen.

None of this is to denigrate the fragrant 60-year-old German per se, who does have qualities — not least of which is being the right gender in the eyes of liberals.

She is a qualified doctor who also speaks French and English — the latter will be less important by the time she takes office on November 1, assuming Brexit has happened then.

I will be accused of sexism for even mentioning this, but Ms von der Leyen is also a mother of seven, and with such a stake in future generations, has made all the right noises about being committed to environmental change. She wants Europe to be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 — not that there are too many contenders for that, Antarctica notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, it would be folly to wait for the ‘wrong’ candidate to get the job of EU powerbroker before speaking out. Plus, the newly-elected President seems an odd choice in some ways.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel — the real most powerful person in the EU, of course — had nominated her, despite her falling popularity in her homeland.

Ms von der Leyen had been criticised in her role of Defence Minister for the German Army’s persistent equipment shortages, and a recent poll there rated her as the second-least popular member of Merkel’s cabinet.

Despite this, Leo and the other EU leaders gave her their backing. It’s a decision that could come back to haunt the Taoiseach.

Ms von der Leyen is said to be keen on forming an EU-wide army, a move which would put her at loggerheads with many in Ireland who cherish our neutrality. She is also a fan of tax reform, which may increase pressure on Ireland over its corporation tax levels.

The new Commission President has also spoken of her desire to create a ‘United States of Europe’. Are we in Ireland comfortable with such a concept?

So, a busy and controversial week in Brussels, then, although you wouldn’t know it, given the amount of time and energy devoted to Trump, Johnson and the antics of Love Island — bread and circuses, the Romans called it, distracting the plebs from the real matters at hand.

At least we in Ireland get to vote on Love Island. The way it’s going, it may be the only thing we will get to vote on in the future.

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