BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - In the twilight of her career, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has chosen to soak up domestic heat from her coalition partners in order to secure a close ally at the top of the European Union who will outlast her.
Ursula von der Leyen, the current German defense minister who was tapped by EU leaders on Tuesday as a unity candidate to be European Commission chief, was not Merkel’s first choice. But with an eye on her legacy, the conservative chancellor has a like-minded problem solver in place to take the helm of the EU.
Oddly, Merkel abstained in a leaders’ vote on nominating von der Leyen - a mark of the waning power of Europe’s once dominant leader who was prevented from backing her own ally due to opposition from her Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners.
As the EU top jobs package came together after tortuous talks, Merkel broke off the Brussels summit for almost an hour to try to persuade the SPD to allow her to vote in favor of von der Leyen, diplomats said. She was unable to do so.
Instead, she left the other EU leaders to endorse von der Leyen to be the first woman to hold the post that sets the EU’s policy agenda, putting a close ally at the heart of the bloc - despite red-hot resistance from the SPD.
“To my mind, this was an acceptable risk that Merkel knew she was taking,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at consultancy Eurasia Group, adding that the risk of her ruling coalition collapsing this year remained constant at 55 percent.
Senior Social Democrats, who last year only reluctantly renewed their awkward left-right “grand coalition” with Merkel, were quick to reject the EU jobs package.
“Von der Leyen is our weakest minister,” tweeted Martin Schulz, a former SPD leader.
Sigmar Gabriel, another former SPD leader, described von der Leyen’s nomination as an “unprecedented act of political trickery” and suggested the party would have grounds to quit the coalition without cabinet approval for the nomination.
The SPD showed no immediate sign of quitting the coalition, and a government spokesman said there was no need for the cabinet to endorse the nomination, which is made by leaders of EU member countries.
The SPD suffered its worst showing nationwide since democracy returned after World War Two in a European election on May 26, prompting its leader to quit and throwing the party into a fresh round of soul searching.
Many in the SPD want an end to their loveless alliance with Merkel’s conservative bloc, which could yet be precipitated by regional elections in three eastern states in the autumn. Polls show the left-leaning party is set to perform poorly.
Carsten Nickel, managing director at Teneo, a consultancy, said the SPD’s awkward withholding of support for von der Leyen’s historic nomination showed the party was in poor shape.
“That the Social Democrats forced Germany into this somewhat embarrassing abstention reveals the true extent of the SPD’s frailty,” he said.
Merkel, who came to power in 2005, has said she will not seek re-election. Instead, she is trying to stage-manage a slow motion exit from politics and has already given up the chair of her Christian Democrats to protege Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The EU jobs deal takes the future proofing a stage further.
“Ultimately, Merkel has placed an ally and confidante into the EU’s top position while also securing a pragmatist and a safe pair of hands at the ECB,” said Rahman at Eurasia. “That’s not a bad outcome for Merkel.”
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, with whom Merkel tackled the euro zone crisis, will take over at the European Central Bank.
Von der Leyen still needs to be confirmed in her new job by an absolute majority in the European Parliament.
On paper, she ought to be able to secure those votes comfortably, but may hit resistance in an assembly aggrieved that EU leaders ignored the lead candidates from the main parliamentary blocs - the “Spitzenkandidaten” - in their horse-trading over top posts.
Seeking to soothe those grievances, Merkel spent the first part of her post-summit news conference on Tuesday evening praising the Spitzenkandidaten, especially conservative Manfred Weber who she had initially supported.
“I don’t think it helped the Spitzenkandidaten that from the outset one of those candidates - and that was Manfred Weber - was presented as unsuitable or unelectable,” Merkel said. “That must not happen again.”
Regardless of those overtures aimed at European lawmakers, Merkel may have trouble convincing Germans von der Leyen is a good pick for Commission president. An RTL/n-tv survey of 1,004 voters on Wednesday by pollster forsa found only 36% backed her.
Von der Leyen’s patchy cabinet record may also prompt questions in the European Parliament. She has had a scandal-prone run as defense minister, mainly over right-wing extremism in the armed forces, gaps in military readiness, and the awarding of arms contracts.
Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Mark Heinrich