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The nominees that emerged for new occupants of the EU’s top five positions look as if they could have been chosen to prove the Brexiters’ criticisms of the EU right. All, except an obscure Italian socialist elected as the new president of the European parliament, have a record of political failure and/or involvement in scandal. And all are from Western Europe – the eleven East European states are unrepresented.
Ursula Von Der Leyen, a Merkel loyalist and Germany’s defence minister since 2013, survived opposition from Merkel’s Social Democrat coalition allies – who thought the next Commission president should come from the Left and judge her incompetent – to secure European Parliament endorsement to replace Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Germany wouldn’t have been able to launch war in 1939 if Von der Leyen had been in charge of its armed forces. They’ve been in a more pathetic state on her watch than at any other time in Germany’s recent history. Just 39 of its 128 Eurofighters and 16 of its 72 transport helicopters are operational. None of its six submarines and less than half its weapon and equipment systems are ready for deployment. Troops on exercise at one point used broomsticks instead of guns. Von Der Leyen has faced scathing criticism and has been summoned to face a parliamentary grilling following reports of ‘large-scale mismanagement in all areas’ in her ministry, including numerous breaches of procurement laws. She’s also faced derision for focusing not on core issues but on maternity uniforms and courses for troops on sexual identity issues. Germany’s Social Democrats refused to endorse her nomination, accusing her of being an ‘inadequate and inappropriate candidate’ to lead the European Commission. Former party leader Martin Schultz has called her Germany’s ‘weakest minister’.
A fervent supporter of a European army, Von der Leyen at the same time has been the face of Germany’s serial freeloading in NATO. Its 2014 summit agreed members would move towards spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence by 2024, but Germany remains stuck at 1.2 per cent. Part of the reason is the eye-watering amount Berlin spends on the over one million asylum-seekers who arrived in 2015-16 – in 2017 €19 billion, over half that year’s defence budget (€37 billion). Germany is often mocked in NATO corridors for arguing that defence spending should be calculated as including money spent on refugees, aid and climate change mitigation.
Von der Leyen’s spectacular incompetence means she measures up competitively against the Farage selection criteria for high EU office. Even so, she’s outclassed by Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, who caused the collapse of his own government. The largest party in Michel’s coalition, the New Flemish Alliance, pulled out when, last December, he ignored its objections and signed the Global Pact on Migration, the UN’s attempt to outlaw tough approaches to illegal immigration. Michel clearly prefers the cushy prospect of being president of the Council – the EU’s heads of government – to sorting out the mess of feuding Walloons and Flemings which he exacerbated.
Two of the EU’s nominees have had serious brushes with the law. Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell, nominated to replace EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, last year was fined €30,000 for ‘very serious’ insider trading violations. Similarly, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, nominated to replace European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, was found guilty in 2016 of negligence for her failure, when French finance minister, to challenge a fraudulent €404 million state payment to a businessman friend of the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
There’s nothing new in the EU nominating those rejected by the voters or shonky retreads to its most senior posts. If Australia were an EU member, imagine having Bill Shorten, Brian Burke or Eddie Obeid pop up in positions of influence over our national affairs.
Von der Leyen, like Juncker, is an enthusiast for a European superstate. She wants to axe the need for member-state unanimity over EU tax, climate, energy and foreign policy. The EU also now looks likely to shift further to the left, especially on climate issues; Von der Leyen wants to enshrine in law net zero emissions by 2050. She initially backed a 50 per cent emissions cut on 1990 levels by 2030 – compared to the current 30 per cent commitment – but in a last-minute scramble to secure votes from socialists and Greens, she increased the goal to 55 per cent.
On Brexit, Boris Johnson’s strategy will probably be to seek EU agreement to the ‘Malthouse Compromise’, whereby after Brexit the EU and the UK, under GATT rules, would maintain their current free trade status quo until they complete a free trade agreement. Johnson is confident that once the EU understands he’s seriously threatening No Deal – which would mean Britain wouldn’t hand over the £39 billion the EU claims it owes – Brussels will blink and do a deal. But whatever happens, the new Brussels team’s arrival in office, on the day after the UK’s departure, will be overshadowed by the EU’s biggest setback in its sixty-two year history.