Ursula von der Leyen’s election is a bad day for Emmanuel Macron

The election is a reminder that ultimately it’s member states who have primacy, not European-wide institutions. 

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Ursula von der Leyen has been narrowly elected as President of the European Commission. She will formally replace Jean-Claude Juncker on 1 November. 

Her narrow victory was the product of many things opposition to the abandonment of the Spitzenkandidaten system, whereby the Europe-wide parties select a candidate before the European parliamentary elections, which was put aside in favour of jockeying by member states, unease at her authoritarian backers in eastern Europe, and doubts about her ministerial record in Germany. 

A bad day for European democracy? Well, it depends on your perspective. It's a reminder that ultimately, it is still member states who have primacy, not the European-wide institutions. They are of course directly elected by European voters but in elections that are on wide range of issues but have significantly higher turnout in elections across the bloc. European parliament elections are in theory an opportunity for voters to think about the direction of Europe but in practice they are used as a proxy for issues at home. 

So is it more or less democratic to have the top jobs decided by wrangling between member states or by agreement within the European Parliament? You pays your money and you makes your choice. 

But ultimately it is a bad day for one of the politicians who most wanted to disrupt the Spitzenkandidaten system: Emmanuel Macron. Yes, he achieved his short-term aims as far as the tussle over how the top jobs are allocated go. He secured a big job for a French national and another for a member of his pan-European group Renew Europe. But there will, never, ever, be the kind of pan-European buy-in for Eurozone and EU reforms of the depth that Macron wants if every meaningful attempt to get European voters to think and vote on a pan-European level is dashed by European leaders in favour of backroom fixes and private negotiation. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.