By Olivia Muñoz-Rojas |
As a European who cast my vote for the European Parliament, I was naturally disappointed at the disregard for the Spitzenkandidaten in the appointment of the new President of the European Commission. Editorials across Europe have stressed the triumph of old-school, bilateral power manoeuvres over any attempt at democratically regenerating European institutions, which the nomination of the heads of the elected party lists for the different posts at stake would have meant. Nobody says the situation after the elections last May was easy, with increasing political fragmentation and a growing tendency among certain member states to boycott rather than facilitate agreements. But it is legitimate to wonder whether there was a genuine effort by the leading governments to push for the Spitzenkandidaten until the very end.
As a woman, however, I have to admit I felt an immediate and slight amount of satisfaction at the unexpected election of two women for the posts of President of the European Commission and President of the European Central Bank. Even if just in terms of political aesthetics and imagination, it is refreshing to see female leadership expand within the predominantly male European power sphere.
Certainly, both von der Leyen and Lagarde distil an aura of conservatism. But, while Lagarde already has a well-known international career behind her, it is harder to anticipate what the legacy of the new President of the European Commission will be if she is confirmed by the European Parliament – let us not forget that the Parliament has the last word, nevertheless. As is often the case, there are mixed assessments of both von der Leyen’s persona and career. Some project a negative image, underlining her low profile and weak position in the German government, adding past accusations of plagiarism in her doctoral thesis (for which she was, nevertheless, cleared) to this unflattering image. Yet others highlight her stamina as a professional and a mother of seven, underscoring her defence of working women, equal pay and same-sex marriage (even against her own party). She has also proven sensitive to the refugee question (including hosting a young asylum seeker at home). And she has apparently also expressed sympathy towards the idea of a federal Europe.
For those who wanted a progressive change in the European institutions that could potentially insufflate new air into the European project, the new appointees –including 72-year old Josep Borrell as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy– but, especially, the way they were selected, is discouraging, signalling that we will just see more of the same (political inertia, democratic deficit… ) in the coming years. Moreover, the surge of the green parties in the European Parliament, which reflect an increasing concern among European citizens for the consequences of climate change, is barely being taken into account in the allocation of the different posts.
This said, perhaps it is more constructive to accept that, unfortunately, this is the best the current EU can do, and give the new appointees a chance. The challenges, starting with climate change, are enormous, and the sooner they get to work, the better. Meanwhile, it is our duty as citizens to remain vigilant and take every opportunity to make the EU institutions accountable for their actions, while working bottom-up for the genuine democratic transformation of Europe that more and more people want. It seems obvious, once more, that it will not come from the top and down.
Olivia Muñoz-Rojas is an independent researcher and writer, currently based in Paris. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics, and writes regularly in El País, El Huffington Post, Clarín and other media.