If a week is a long time in politics, a year and a half feels like a century. At least that is how it seems when looking at the career of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Despite having only been appointed to the top job in Brussels in December 2019, she has had to face an unprecedented wave of crises – from Brexit, to Russia, to COVID, to an ongoing debate over the future of Europe.
It is reasonable to expect that anyone would struggle under the circumstances, especially given how inflexible the European Commission is in a crisis. And yet, Frau von der Leyen has done anything but help herself in the first sixteen months of her presidency. By all account from Berlaymont insiders, the head of the European Commission has become increasingly insular – often not consulting with her fellow commissioners before making vital decisions and lashing out when things go wrong.
Unsurprisingly, calls for von der Leyen to resign as President have slowly been mounting in Brussels. The chances of her going are however slim. First of all, she has given no indication of her willingness to go. But beyond that there are political and institutional barriers to her removal in the event that MEPs decide to take things into their own hands.
Perhaps most crucial is the difficulty of removing a commissioner from office. For the European Parliament to remove a single commissioner, they must express their intent to pass a motion of censure that would remove the entire College of Commissioners. This was written into the treaties as a means of preventing individual scrutiny against a particular member.
To bring forward such a motion, one tenth of all MEPs has to present their decision to the President of the European Parliament, who will then pass it on to the European Commission. After 24 hours with the Commission, the European Parliament is allowed to start debating the motion, and after 48 hours they can vote – but only by roll call, which means that each MEP must publicly express their vote. Two thirds of MEPs are required for the motion to pass – and for the Commission to be dismissed.
The process has been designed to be as difficult and convoluted as possible, meaning that even if the Commission wanted to remove just one bad apple, they would have to remove them all.
Because of this system, the political obstacles to her removal are far too high. By removing the President, MEPs would end up removing all other commissioners as well – which in many cases would be seen as friendly fire. Many commissioners come from the governing parties of EU member states – and are there as trusted informal voice of such governments on the Commission. Equally, they serve as the voice of the pan-European political parties they represent – with the Christian Democrat European Peoples Party taking the lion’s share of 11 out of 27 posts. Neither the political parties nor many of the member states want to see that balance change.
There are, however, a few exceptions. Dutch Vice President of the Commission Frans Timmermans was appointed as a socialist, despite the Dutch government being led by Liberals. It is obvious that Prime Minister Mark Rutte appointed him as a means of keeping him out of the way ahead of the next election. Now that Rutte has won the election, Timmermans is no longer an electoral threat, and so a freshly appointed Commission could see Mr Rutte appointing someone from his own party, upsetting the political balance. Equally, elections in Slovakia and changes of government in Slovenia and Italy have also resulted in Commissioners that do not match the political leanings of their home governments.
For those who want to keep the status quo in the political composition of the Commission, removing von der Leyen would throw things into chaos with the need to reappoint a new slate. This would also set back the work of the European Union as a whole. After all, the current Commission was delayed by more than five months in starting because of political disagreements and the failure to find strong candidates for leadership.
Finally, there is the issue of the appointment of a new Commission itself. The top job in the Berlaymont is a poisoned chalice in the eyes of many who would once have previously put themselves forward. Not only would they inherit the vaccine shortage crisis, but also the prospect of an economic one in the future.