Meet Ursula von der Leyen, the new president-elect of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union.
Like all those soon to occupy positions of power in the EU, von der Leyen did not run in the recent European elections for the position she is about to hold. She did not participate in the debates in front of various national electorates. But she was chosen—after the elections—by the political class in Brussels, ostensibly for her faith in and loyalty to the European superstate, and personally to the German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Since 2013, von der Leyen has been the German defense minister. During that time, a parliamentary report exposed German planes that can’t fly and guns that don’t shoot. Fewer than a fifth of Germany’s helicopters are combat ready. Luftwaffe revealed that most of its 128 Typhoon jets were not ready to leave ground. All of Germany’s six submarines were out of commission.
Another report by the Rand Corporation, a think tank, revealed that it would take Germany a month to mobilize in the case of a Russian invasion of the Baltic States. Von der Leyen is very unpopular in the German army, but very popular with the Eurocrats. She’s a fervent supporter of a European army and a “United States of Europe”—the ultimate qualification for being president of the European Commission.
But there is more to the von der Leyen story. As Politico recently reported, “an investigative committee of the German parliament — the toughest instrument that lawmakers can use to probe government misdeeds — is digging into how lucrative contracts from her ministry were awarded to outside consultants without proper oversight, and whether a network of informal personal connections facilitated those deals.”
The scent of corruption is a common element among those who are to hold key positions in the European Union over the next few years. Josep Borrell, minister of foreign affairs for the socialist government of Spain, was fined 30,000 euros for insider trading. He is expected to hold the foreign policy post in the European Commission.
Christine Lagarde, most recently chief of the IMF, was involved in the case of an arbitration panel that awarded a massive payout to a French tycoon while she was the finance minister of France. A special court for ministerial misconduct found her guilty of “negligence” but “waived any punishment or criminal record, citing her ‘international reputation’ and role in dealing with ‘the international financial crisis.’” A marvelously L’état, C’est Moi form of legal reasoning. Lagarde is expected to be the next president of the European Central Bank.
The common threads of corruption, incompetence, and luck of accountability are what unites a political class that has divorced itself from the concerns of the average European. In the last days before her confirmation, von der Leyen pursued a charm offensive that included a commitment to a “Green New Deal,” a continuation of an open borders policy, and a further deepening and enlargement of the European superstate. This included the story of her having offered hospitality to a Syrian immigrant who “now speaks German fluently.”
Obviously von der Leyen would never have won the May elections running on an agenda like that. But of course, she never had to run a campaign to win the votes of the peoples of Europe. The campaign that she did run was premised on her having built “an extensive international network in politics and business,” as another Politico story put it.
Von der Leyen thrived in the networking atmosphere of World Economic Forum meetings, where she “serves on the organization’s board of trustees,” Politico noted, adding, “She’s also forged close ties to powerful figures outside the world of politics, most notably Bertelsmann, Europe’s largest media company, which owns RTL, the Continent’s largest commercial broadcaster, book publisher Random House and a stable of magazines.”
A senior Green quoted for the article said her fluency in French has helped her establish a rapport with the French political class that is unrivaled in Berlin.
It’s clear that von der Leyen’s domestic record appears to have had little effect on her election—what matters is that she is universally liked by the who’s who. “What matters most in these circles is the personal connection,” said an adviser to the leader of one of the EU’s smaller member states.
Those who count and those who are to be ruled are not the same group of people. That seems to be the essence of modern European politics: a political class and ideological cult that masquerades as a competent technocratic elite, despite its long and disastrous history. Von der Leyen’s terrible record as defense minister meant nothing. Neither did Lagarde’s record as head of the IMF, where, for instance, the Greek debt crisis was transformed into a social catastrophe. The deciding factor was their dedication to something that “those who count” are committed to. Elections are merely a necessary, archaic ritual of legitimization.
Napoleon Linarthatos is a writer based in New York.