Whether or not Ursula von der Leyen becomes European Commission president this year depends on the vagaries of Romanian politics.
In what was terrible timing for von der Leyen, the Romanian government collapsed this month after Social Democrat Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă lost a confidence vote in parliament. Without a government in place, there’s no one to nominate a European commissioner. That’s a problem for von der Leyen as Bucharest’s initial choice was rejected by the European Parliament and a second one wasn’t formally accepted.
Romania isn’t the only challenge for von der Leyen: The Hungarian and French nominees were also rejected and their replacements still have to go through the confirmation process. Then there’s the U.K., which has been told it needs to make a nomination in exchange for being given a Brexit extension.
But Romania is the only country with no government. The parliament will vote on one November 4, but the result is in doubt.
In the best-case scenario for von der Leyen, a minority National Liberal Party (PNL) government would get the support of a majority of MPs. If that happens and they put forward a name at some point next week, it would leave three weeks for the entire process to be completed and the new Commission to be in place by December 1, the earliest potential start date agreed by MEPs.
“We’re ready to advance [on the nomination] as soon as the government is sworn in,” said Ionel Dancă, spokesman for the PNL, which is part of the conservative European People’s Party, as is von der Leyen.
But if the PNL government doesn’t get approved, all bets are off. In that scenario, the political instability in Bucharest could push the start of the von der Leyen Commission to 2020.
“Until the confirmatory vote [on the whole Commission] occurs, we will not know when the new Commission enters into force, but the working assumption is indeed the 1st of December for the time being,” said Mina Andreeva, the Commission’s chief spokesperson.
Andreeva said von der Leyen was pushing for swift action. “It’s urgent and she would expect, once there is a government in place in Romania, to send a candidate as swiftly as possible, and she is in contact with her counterparts in Romania on that front,” Andreeva said.
There’s not quite as much urgency in Bucharest.
Ludovic Orban, the PNL leader who was tasked with forming a government, tried to bring forward the date of the vote on his potential government but was thwarted by the Social Democrats (PSD) of Dăncilă, which still hold the largest number of seats in parliament.
“It is what it is, the people will judge them,” Orban told reporters.
The numbers game
Orban is closing in on the numbers he needs to become prime minister, but he’s not there yet, with party spokesman Dancă saying the PNL has secured the votes of 225 lawmakers. It needs 233.
A (rather large) potential spanner in the works is that the PSD has threatened to boycott the vote, thus rendering it void.
PRO Romania, a small center-left party founded by former PSD Prime Minister Victor Ponta, is also considering boycotting the vote. Ponta told POLITICO the party would make a decision after hearings of potential Cabinet ministers in the parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday.
One thing is certain: PRO Romania will not vote for the Orban government.
Ponta pushed for a Socialist to be nominated as commissioner, he said, adding that Orban refused.
Ponta said he “tried to explain” to Orban that replacing Rovana Plumb — the center-left candidate who was rejected by MEPs on ethics grounds — with a conservative would upset the “balance” in Brussels.
“I think it’s complicated for the structure of the Commission to replace a socialist commissioner with one from the EPP,” he said.
Names in the frame
If the PNL government gets the support of the Romanian parliament next week, Orban is expected to nominate a fellow PNL member, and two MEPs are considered front-runners: Siegfried Mureșan and Adina-Ioana Vălean.
The 38-year-old Mureșan has been an MEP since 2014 and is a vice chair of the EPP group. He’s a former member of the People’s Movement Party led by ex-President Traian Băsescu and has been a regular on the campaign trail with Orban and current President Klaus Iohannis, also from the PNL. Mureșan told POLITICO he didn’t want to comment on a potential nomination.
ROMANIA NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
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Vălean, 51, has been a member of the European Parliament since Romania joined the EU in 2007 and now leads the industry, research and energy committee.
Asked if she had been approached about the commissioner job, Vălean told POLITICO she didn’t want to comment but she would like to do it, saying: “To get the opportunity at some point to work hands-on on developing legislation for the European Union — it’s a career wish, why not?”
PNL spokesman Dancă said no name has been officially discussed.
If the Orban government isn’t confirmed next week, “no one knows now what the solution is,” Ponta said.
Dăncilă, who is still PM but in caretaker mode, and Iohannis would have to agree on a candidate. That won’t be easy as both are rivals in the November 10 presidential election.
“No one is capable of overcoming the interests related to the presidential election,” Ponta said.
Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.
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