The election Tuesday, by a narrow margin at the European Parliament, of German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) as new European Commission President, has been keenly observed in Estonia. Foreign ministry undersecretary Matti Maasikas appeared on ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" to speak about the appointment, noting that von der Leyen, despite concerns and opposition surrounding her position as new commission president in the wider world, meets some of the desired criteria in Estonia, namely that top European officials understand and take notice of the region and its issues.
"We are actually in the EU in order to solve common problems together, and what we can do is try to get a bit more attention and support from Brussels on topics which might have been pushed to the fringes of what would be the 'European average'," Maasikas said, when asked about challenges facing the union and what the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen, who visited Estonia earlier this year, as commissioner, might mean.
"There is no coalition and opposition in the classic sense at the European parliament. Today's result need not mean that the Greens, for instance, who voted against her appointment, will remain opposed to her," Maasikas continued, when asked about the close margin by which von der Leyen got elected.
"Second, it is important to remember that before any commission drafts or initiatives even reach the parliament, they must be approved by all member states," he added.
"Von der Leyen has strong support from the member states. I believe this can force the dynamic to be shaped somewhat differently from what we had with Juncker, who tried to rely heavily on parliament," Maasikas continued.
Von der Leyen's own platform, despite being a a member of the conservative CDU party in her home country, contains social democratic themes, for instance an emphasis on climate change and gender equality. At the same time, Europe has been facing a strong trend towards right-wing populist movements. Maasikas, however, did not think that von der Leyen was heading for a major confrontation.
"She has not been seeking out conflict – which, in fact, makes sense for a person seeking support in their role," he said.
"However, she has communicated very strongly with those people we saw coming out very prominently in the course of the last elections to the European Parliament, namely green, environmentally aware, environmentally concerned people."
"Von der Leyen has spoken very directly and very firmly with those people today, which is one of the reasons I don't think the Greens will remain 'blockers' in the parliament.
Questions about von der Leyen's record, notably allegations of plagiarism on a doctoral thesis, support for online censorship, and accusations of nepotism and misspending during her time as German defense minister, have abounded in the lead-up to her appointment. Her opposition to selling arms to Ukraine in 2015 has also not gone unnoticed, in Estonia. However, Maasikas felt that this was par for the course with any new appointment.
"It's very often the case that when a politician is sent to Europe, scandals from their home nation tend to come out in the early stages. Jean-Claude Juncker faced questions about his tax affairs in Luxembourg, amongst other things [when he started]," Maasikas said.
"Our view is that von der Leyen was German defense minister when NATO forces were first brought to the Baltic States; in Lithuania, these are German-led, and von der Leyen directed things with a firm hand."
"Our overall desire, that top European officials understand our region, especially in its security concerns, has been met by von der Leyen's appointment," Maasikas concluded.
The original interview (in Estonian) is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte