The Commission as a political advertisement: Von der Leyen and HDZ showed that the Commission's new rules do not make sense

16. May 2024.
The Commission as a political advertisement: Von der Leyen and HDZ showed that the Commission's new rules do not make sense 1
photo: Miroslav LELAS/HINA

The appearance of Ursula von der Leyen, the leading candidate of the EPP at the HDZ rally in Split, highlighted the weakness of the new ethical Guidelines that the Commission adopted for the participation of its Members in the elections for the European Parliament. And while von der Leyen is not allowed to emphasize her current position in the campaign, the same is not true for HDZ which has nothing to prevent it from using the leading person of the European Commission for its campaign, thereby putting other parties in an unfair position. Gong has alerted the Commission and the European Ombudsman to this issue.

Ursula von der Leyen, the candidate of the European People's Party for President of the European Commission, recently visited Split, participating in a joint campaign rally of the European People's Party and HDZ for the European Parliament elections, which will be held in Croatia on June 9. Von der Leyen, along with expressing her support for HDZ, also presented her campaign for re-election to the position of President of the European Commission. Although she was not directly presented as the Commission President on the poster promoting the rally, the media and HDZ itself persistently referred to her as such. They boasted about the "support of the President of the Commission", talked about how "Croatia has a strong voice in the Commission" and quoted Pleković as thanking "Madam President". From their official page through all of their channels on social media, they referred to her as the President of the Commission and even tagged her official profile, which she herself does not use in the campaign due to the new rules. This behavior is not necessarily against the new guidelines, because they do not refer to national parties, but it refutes the very idea and purpose for which they were created, which is that the institutional functions in the Commission, which must be independent, must not be used for the political purposes of the parties of its Members.

The Commission as a political advertisement: Von der Leyen and HDZ showed that the Commission's new rules do not make sense 2
Source: Official web page of HDZ
The Commission as a political advertisement: Von der Leyen and HDZ showed that the Commission's new rules do not make sense 3
Source: HDZ official Twitter page
The Commission as a political advertisement: Von der Leyen and HDZ showed that the Commission's new rules do not make sense 4
Source: HDZ - Hrvatska demokratska zajednica Official Facebook page
The Commission as a political advertisement: Von der Leyen and HDZ showed that the Commission's new rules do not make sense 5
Source: HDZ - Hrvatska demokratska zajednica official Facebook page

New guidelines for the participation of Members of the European Commission in election procedures were introduced by von der Leyen herself, after Gong had reported her for participating in HDZ's campaign video, and the European Ombudsman insisted on further regulation of the rules for the participation of Members of the Commission in election campaigns. And while she herself carefully distinguishes her official duties as President of the European Commission from those of the party candidate in the campaign on all of her social media, HDZ, on the other hand, makes good use of her arrival in Croatia on its channels for the purpose of promoting its party.

In Split, Ursula Von der Leyen also announced that the European Commission will have a Commissioner for defense in the next mandate. We can treat that statement as the usual pre-election promises of politicians, but we can also treat it as trying to prejudice the results of the elections in which more than 400 million citizens will vote in the period from 6th to 9th of June to select the new Members of the European Parliament, and the results of which will later be the basis for forming the majority in the Parliament, and then sequentially the selection of Members of the European Commission.

The Commission as a political advertisement: Von der Leyen and HDZ showed that the Commission's new rules do not make sense 6
Split, 10.05.2024. - President of HDZ Andrej Plenković and the leading candidate of EPP- Ursula von der Leyen. Photo credit: HINA/ Miroslav LELAS

The picture of Plenković and von der Leyen in front of two flags, Croatian and the European Union flag, without party symbols, suggesting that they held the meeting as statesmen and not as party colleagues, also shows the problem of using their institutional roles for political purposes. Although the main reason for Ursula von der Leyen's arrival in Split was to participate in the campaign rally of the EPP and HDZ, the picture was taken earlier in the day when Andrej Plenković and von der Leyen were meeting with former interns of the Robert Schuman Foundation, EPP's think-tank in Radisson Blu hotel. Taken between socializing with party youth and a campaign rally, the picture that was reported by numerous Croatian media gives a false impression of strength and an inter-institutional meeting, rather than a party meeting in a break between party activities of two technical leaders of institutions. While Plenković once again won the position of Prime Minister, at the same time he is at the moment a candidate for the European Parliament on the HDZ list, while von der Leyen is a candidate for the leading position in the Commission.

The Guidelines on ethical standards for the participation of the Members of the European Commission in the election campaign to the European Parliament, which the European Commission adopted after Gong's complaint against Ursula von der Leyen for her participation in HDZ's campaign video, emphasize the independence of the European Commission as an institutional body, but leave space for its members in which they should exist in parallel as a supra-political body of the European Union, and individuals, political actors, with their attitudes and values ​​and their party affiliations. In practice, last week in Split, it was shown what their implementation looks like. Much has been left incomplete, which is proving problematic in the current campaign for the European Parliament elections.

Namely, while the guidelines for participating in national elections explicitly state that Commission Members must withdraw from the work of the Commission and that the president of the European Commission grants them "unpaid electoral leave" for the entire campaign period, things are not so clear in the guidelines for European Parliament elections. While the ethical standards regarding the use of Commission resources that should not be used for political purposes are clearly spelled out, which Gong welcomes, in the part where the guidelines touch on public statements in the campaign, things become a little more unclear. They state that "in their statements, Commissioners may not use the title Member of the Commission or the visual identity of the Commission in a way that could create the impression of institutional support of the Commission or one of its Members for the election campaign", which is a direct consequence of Gong's complaint about von der Leyen.

Furthermore, the Members of the Commission are required to create special pages on social networks, separate from the official ones they use in their capacity as Members of the Commission, and that when making statements "it must be clear that such statements of the Commissioner are personal opinions and not statements in their institutional capacity. Commission Members should ensure that a distinction can be made between their public statements and interventions as participants in the campaign and those made in an institutional capacity." Unlike the members of the European Parliament, who represent both citizens and parties in the Parliament, and are grouped into clubs according to party affiliation, the European Commission as the executive body of the EU has a different role, which is emphasized in the Code as independent and non-partisan, i.e. above party politics.

It seems that a new set of guidelines will be needed to clarify even more plainly the demarcation between institutional and party roles of European Commission Members, as well as the responsibility of national parties in exploiting Commission Members in their campaign activities. Gong informed the Commission and the European Ombudsman about this case and will continue to advocate reducing the gray area of ​​abuse of office with the aim of separating the duties of officials and campaign candidates, in order to strengthen public trust in elections and the political system and ensure responsible behavior of officials.