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How Europe’s Populists Lost the EU Game of Thrones

In the European Union's leadership negotiations this month, populist governments failed not only to act as spoilers, but also to secure any concessions at all. They now have every reason to worry that they will be held accountable for their routine violations of the rule of law when EU funds are disbursed.

WARSAW – The conventional wisdom about European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s confirmation by the European Parliament this month is that Central and Eastern European populists pushed her over the line. That is wrong. Had such parties actually backed her, von der Leyen’s margin of victory would have been much larger, considering the support she had from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the liberals in the EU parliament.

True, populist MEPs from Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) Party and Hungary’s Fidesz were firmly opposed to Frans Timmermans, a Dutch socialist who has loudly condemned both parties over their violations of EU norms and the rule of law. But nor did they want to strengthen French President Emmanuel Macron, who supported von der Leyen. The optimal outcome for Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was von der Leyen’s confirmation by the smallest possible majority. Populist MEPs thus appear to have been instructed to say they were voting for her without actually doing so.

Had von der Leyen lost, it would have been ample payback to the rejection of the PiS candidate for deputy speaker of the European Parliament and former Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s two failed bids to chair the Parliament’s Employment Committee. Moreover, this was around the same time that Krzysztof Szczerski, also backed by PiS, lost his bid to become Deputy Secretary General of NATO.

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