Questions have been raised after Ursula von der Leyen appeared in a promotional clip used as part of the election campaign by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
In the short clip, which was filmed last Friday at the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels, von der Leyen was identified as the European Commission President and was filmed standing in front of a European flag.
Von der Leyen is a member of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany and belongs to the same European People’s Party “family” as HDZ.
However, critics say she is in breach of the code of conduct for members of the European Commission.
“The President recorded a short soundbite for use in a video involving a number of EPP politicians. It was meant as a contribution in her personal capacity and, regrettably, this was not made clear in the final version of the video when it was shown” Commission spokesman
This states that they “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.”
On Monday, with over 90 percent of the vote counted, HDZ has 66 seats in Croatia’s 151-seat parliament and looks set to form a new coalition government with smaller right-wing groups.
Von der Leyen has since reportedly said that it was “regrettable” it was not made clear in the video that she was speaking in a personal capacity.
On Monday, the Commission’s chief spokesman faced a barrage of questions on the video clip during a news briefing.
The spokesman said, “The president recorded a short soundbite for use in a video involving a number of EPP politicians. It was meant as a contribution in her personal capacity and, regrettably, this was not made clear in the final version of the video when it was shown.”
With the Commission building as the clear backdrop to the clip, the impression, he admitted, was that she may have been talking in an official capacity when “this was not the case.”
“If I had known von der Leyen would use her position to engage in national elections, I would have thought twice before pressing yes to her as president” Evin Incir MEP
Von der Leyen agreed to take part in the video, he told reporters, after a request from the Croatian government cabinet on Friday morning.
“She recorded a very short clip, lasting a few seconds, as part of Croatia’s legislative campaign, along with a lot of other video material she was also recording on Friday in the studios here.”
“The clip was then sent to our contacts in Croatia but the final version that was broadcast within 24 hours of the clip being recorded should not have been used against a backdrop of the Berlaymont. This was done in the post-production phase in Zagreb.”
“She accepts that a mistake was made in this and that, in future, anything which is of a political nature must be done in line with the Commission’s code of conduct.”
He said efforts would be made to ensure that such “unintentional errors” do not occur again.
He added, “Clearly, she is of the view that it is good for EU democracy that commissioners can engage in an active political life. This must be allowed but all appropriate conditions must also be applied.”
“This was just a soundbite at the end of a long sequence of other videos and lasted just two seconds. There were no costs to take into consideration.”
He said, “A mistake was made, that is accepted.”
Law professors have claimed there was a breach of code of conduct by the President.
Asked if he thought there had been such a breach, the spokesman said, “The representation of the Berlaymont building like that was a mistake. When I say a mistake, I mean a mistake. A number of technical errors were made by different parties.”
“The Commission President should exercise restraint as leader of a cross-party college whose purpose is to promote the general interest of the EU states and citizens” Andrew Duff, former UK Liberal MEP
“As everyone knows, the President is a member of the EPP. In this capacity she can express political views but, of course, she is also the President of the European Commission.”
He said he was unsure if, in the past, a commission president has intervened in such a way in an election campaign.
He added, “It is for the President to assess on a case by case basis if it is desirable or not to support politicians, but she accepts that it is very important that the rules are respected.”
“She intends that, in the future, all the proper procedures are put in place so that this kind of mistake is not made again. It is important to focus now on saying that such mistakes will not be made in the future.”
While commissioners are allowed to voice “personal opinions,” Swedish Socialist MEP Evin Incir questioned von der Leyen’s assertion that she was taking part in the video in a personal capacity, saying, “Personal capacity? Ursula von der Leyen is President of the Commission, not the EPP.”
“Is the next step to support Viktor Orban because he is EPP? “If I had known von der Leyen would use her position to engage in national elections, I would have thought twice before pressing yes to her as president.”
Hungarian RE member Katalin Cseh said, “Well, it is out in the open, then. President von der leyen is a political leader, campaigning for an EPP party in a national election.”
In a statement, the ECR said, “we believe that it was entirely inappropriate for the Commission President to appear in a party political broadcast during the Croatian election. As President of the Commission she must represent all Europeans - regardless of political party.”
Former UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff, a constitutional expert and president of the Spinelli group, described her appearance as an “astonishing blunder.”
He said, “The Commission President should exercise restraint as leader of a cross-party college whose purpose is to promote the general interest of the EU states and citizens.”