Ursula Von der Leyen, confirmed as the new President of the EU Commission, thanks to votes from UK MEPs, would do well to read the account of his time as President of the Commission by Roy Jenkins in his memoir A Life at the Centre. Jenkins, realising that his ambition to become PM of the UK would not be fulfilled desired the job in Brussels above all others. It did not turn out to be nearly as nice as he expected and half way through his four year term his attention turned back to British politics.
Jenkins notes that since the time of Walter Hallstein (the first President of the Commission) the Germans tended not to appoint people of the first rank to the Commission. Hallstein’s ardent enthusiasm for European unity was a bit too strong for the Germans. He was a mistake not to be repeated. Mrs Von Der Leyen sounds like a pale echo of Hallstein but lacks his intellectual depth or his negotiating skills. Hallstein came to a sticky end, thanks to General de Gaulle.
Although Jenkins wanted the job as Commission President he confessed that he had little idea about what the EEC, as it then was, actually did. Like Mrs Von Der Leyen, Jenkins hoped to influence the composition of the Commission. Like Jenkins Mrs Von Der Leyen is likely to be disappointed as member states nominate the Commissioners. Jenkins found that his days were dominated by having to bring the member states in line for any sort of decision, however limited, to be made. ‘My first six months in Brussels were not a success…I would not have made the decision to go to Brussels had I been able to see things in advance…the first months I look back on as a numb period, comparable with my first weeks in the army on the frozen parade grounds or in the foggy Nissen huts… The summer of 1977 was one of the lowest of my life so far. It was a horrible contrast to my enthusiastic anticipation of a year before’.
Jenkins concluded that he needed to announce a grand new initiative. He proclaimed ‘Economic and Monetary Union by 1980’. Easier said than done. All that he achieved was the creation of the European Monetary System. Economic Union remains, forty years later, an elusive concept. Mrs Von Der Leyen listed ambitious targets in her speech to the European Parliament to encourage MEPs to vote for her. There would be a European minimum wage, a capital markets union, European unemployment insurance and a European army among other things. All these have been on the agenda for decades. Previous Commission Presidents have seen them shot down by the member states. Ah well, Mrs Von Der Leyen wants the end of the rule of unanimity on issues including social policy and tax. Problem is that this can only be achieved by a unanimous decision of all the member states. Like Jenkins she may find herself two years into her term of office plotting a return to domestic politics.