In spite of everything that has happened in the EU in the last five years, its member states contrived to select four politicians who embody total continuity with all the policies that led the EU into this mess in the first place.
None of the recent calamities have persuaded the bloc to even slightly alter its course. Not the rise of anti-system parties in Italy, Germany, France, Finland and elsewhere. Not the rise of patriotic forces in Poland and Hungary. And not Brexit, which in economic terms is equivalent to the loss of not one member state but 20, and which will destroy the current EU budget arrangements.
The most striking announcement is of course that of the top job, the German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president. Because the Commission has a monopoly over the whole legislative and executive process in the EU institutions, this body is the motor which drives the whole machine. The parliament, by comparison, is powerless. The fact that Germany has now acquired control of the most important EU institution is remarkable, not least because it is the first time a German has held this post since the very first Commission president, Walter Hallstein, who had the job between 1958 and 1967. In the intervening decades, and especially since 1990, Germany has emerged as the hegemonic power in the EU and nothing is decided in Brussels without Berlin’s agreement.
Ursula von der Leyen’s specific contribution, apart from her nationality and her status as a close ally of Angela Merkel, is that she is a committed supporter not only of the concept of a federal Europe but also of an EU army. As defense minister, she previously announced plans to invest €130 billion in Germany’s military over 15 years, and a 10 percent increase in 2019 to bring it up to €50 billion a year. If this re-militarization is dressed up in “European” clothes, then Cold War tensions on the European continent will only rise, something Mrs von der Leyen clearly wants: she is notorious for being one of the worst anti-Russian hawks in Germany and Europe.
Charles Michel, the new president of the European Council, is the second Belgian to have occupied this essentially honorific post: Herman van Rompuy was appointed as the first president in 2009. (The second was Donald Tusk; Michel is the third.) It is often said of Belgium that it has seven parliaments but no state: now Michel will have 27 governments but still no state. It would be difficult to imagine a more conformist politician than Charles Michel: this born liberal has never uttered an original word in his life. Moreover, like Ursula von der Leyen, he has EU politics in his blood. Like Ernst Albrecht, Ursula von der Leyen’s father, who was a senior official at the European Commission before he became minister president of Lower Saxony (Ursula was born in Brussels and went to the European School), Charles Michel’s father, Louis, was a Belgian foreign minister and European commissioner. Two out of yesterday’s four appointments are therefore dynastic, emphasizing the caste-like European political class, to which one should perhaps add Josep Borrell who is a former president of the European Parliament and a former president of the European University Institute in Florence.
In short, none of the four shines as a personality while several of them have been embroiled in financial scandals – Borrell for failing to declare a €300,000 a year consultancy job in 2012 and Lagarde for approving a state payout to a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy. Leyen has often been accused of incompetence as a minister, more concerned with her perfect hairdo than with running the German Army. All four have survived in politics, in most cases for decades, precisely because they have never deviated from the party line and have instead got where they are by doing as they are told.
In short, faced with an existential crisis and a severe lack of credibility, the EU’s message to its voters and the world is: Business as usual.