European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s soundbite for a Croatian political campaign video lasted all of two seconds. But the repercussions have already lasted much longer and won’t be over anytime soon.
Questions about code-of-conduct violations took up nearly half an hour during the Commission’s midday news conference on Monday and are certain to persist, after an ethics complaint and demand for an investigation over her use of official resources for political purposes.
The Commission’s spokesperson, Eric Mamer, said mistakes had been made. But despite the lengthy dissection of the matter, it was not quite clear who made the mistakes, or even how many mistakes there had been, or whether those mistakes indeed reflect a “breach” of the conduct code or perhaps some other form of violation.
Nor was it clear precisely what the Commission had done, or would do in response — though it was certain that von der Leyen does not want whatever happened to ever happen again.
This much is clear: Von der Leyen on Friday recorded a brief message in Croatian for a campaign video in support of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). The party, which finished first in a parliamentary election on Sunday, is part of von der Leyen’s center-right political family, the European People’s Party (EPP).
Like other leading EPP figures from across Europe featured in the video, von der Leyen said two words in Croatian, “sigurna Hrvatska,” which translates as “a secure Croatia” and was the HDZ’s campaign slogan.
In the video, von der Leyen is standing inside the Berlaymont, the Commission headquarters, next to an EU flag, with text on screen that identifies her as the Commission president.
Also not in dispute is the plain text of Article 9, Paragraph 3 of the Commission’s code of conduct: “Members shall abstain from making public statements or interventions on behalf of any political party or organisation of the social partners of which they are members, except when standing for election/participating in an election campaign.”
While that provision would suggest von der Leyen should not have gotten involved with any election that wasn’t part of her own campaign for public office, Mamer’s answer to questions about the incident focused instead on where the video was made, and on the use of von der Leyen’s title, which he said was added “post-production” in Zagreb.
The Commission’s argument, in a nutshell, is that von der Leyen made her contribution to the campaign in a “personal capacity,” not as president of the EU executive.
Mamer said that the clip was filmed at the end of a session in which von der Leyen had recorded a series of other video messages — now an essential ritual of political life in the age of coronavirus travel restrictions.
“This video obviously shouldn’t have had a background representing the Berlaymont, but simply when the video was filmed they used the same background for the previous sequences and that stayed the same,” Mamer said. “And then during the post-production phase in Zagreb, the title of the president was added, which was obviously not planned.”
So the background was a mistake, but whose mistake?
“La présidente a été informée de ces erreurs,” Mamer said in French — “The president has been informed of these errors.” Or did he say “ses erreurs” — meaning her errors?
Given the obfuscation that followed in English, ces erreurs apparently did not belong to anyone in particular, least of all the president.
“What she would like,” Mamer said, “is to express very clearly her instructions to her team that any sequence of a political nature that she might film must absolutely respect the articles of the Code of Conduct of the Commission. And she will ensure that the appropriate procedures are in place to prevent in the future these types of unintentional mistakes.”
The lengthy questioning at Monday’s news conference about these unintentional mistakes followed an initial, inelegant explanation over the weekend, in which Mamer expressed some regret — but that regret seemed to be over the Croatian party’s handling of the video than over anything the president had done. “It was meant as a contribution in her personal capacity,” he tweeted. “Regrettably, this was not made clear in the final version of the video.”
During the news conference, Mamer acknowledged that at least one complaint has been filed over the misuse of official resources, but he insisted that there was virtually no cost expended to produce the clip. “It was an extremely short sequence, which you know was recorded in a couple of seconds,” he emphasized. “And post-production was done in Zagreb, so there was literally no cost to take into consideration or extremely, extremely minor costs.”
Responding to one of several follow-up questions, Mamer said, “What I can say is that the president was informed that a certain number of mistakes were made in the context of the production of this video and therefore that we need to ensure that the procedures which are followed next time, if there is a next time, allow us to avoid this unintentional mistake.”
But was it a breach of the code of conduct? “When I say mistake, I say and I mean mistake,” Mamer said.
It became clear that the president herself felt the matter was resolved and the “mistake” needs no further investigation by the Commission — highlighting another awkward situation whereby the president, who is responsible for making sure the code of conduct is respected, would be responsible for initiating an investigation into complaints about her own behavior.
Mamer also said von der Leyen believed that she and other commissioners should be able to express their political views. “The president thinks that it is a good thing for democracy that members of the College [of Commissioners] can have an active political life and that these types of things can be done, but obviously be done in the right conditions,” he said.
But The Good Lobby, the nonprofit watchdog organization that filed a formal complaint and requested an investigation, said the code of conduct prohibits top officials from just such communications, and that such open partisanship risked undermining the Commission’s ability to enforce EU laws and regulations.
“This unprecedented episode highlights the tension between an increasingly politicized EU Commission and its duty to fairly enforce EU obligations vis-à-vis all member states,” the group’s founder, Alberto Alemanno, said Monday.
“How can the EU Commission still be trusted when its decision whether to go after a member state or not is driven by politics and not solely by the pursuit of the EU common interest?” Alemanno asked.
He added: “How will the EU Commission — and the entire EU project — be perceived by the opposition party in Croatia?”
Alexis Georgoulis, a member of the European Parliament from Greece’s leftist Syriza party, backed the demand for an inquiry and called von der Leyen’s appearance in the video “problematic.”
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