Mac and Ley
© Ludovic Marin/pool/AFP/Getty ImagesEmmanuel Macron needs von der Leyen
Since the results of the European elections started to trickle through, the continent's elites have been scrambling to minimise their impact. Faced with a predictable surge in support for Right-populist parties, their strategy has been relatively simple: to fast-track the usually lengthy process for the selection of the bloc's three top jobs โ€” that of president of the European Commission, currently held by Ursula von der Leyen; of president of the European Council, held by Charles Michel; and of foreign policy chief, which is currently in the hands of Josep Borrell. Within hours, Operation Save Brussels had gone into overdrive, in an attempt to "lock in" the EU's institutional set-up for the next five years before the Right-populists make any more advances.

It was in honour of this mission that EU leaders held an "informal" dinner in Brussels last night. Amid frenzied briefings and counter-briefings, the discussions largely centred on the presidency of the Commission โ€” the most powerful and coveted post in the EU. And even if they failed to reach an agreement for all three posts, von der Leyen's reconfirmation seems all but certain.

As far as the European Council is concerned, von der Leyen can count on the backing of the 11 heads of state or government who are affiliated with the EPP bloc, as well as the four belonging to the centre-left S&D, including Germany, and the five belonging to the liberal Renew Europe, including France. These three groups are, after all, part of the "super grand coalition" that has supported von der Leyen in the European Parliament for the past five years.

For now, Germany and France haven't formally endorsed her, but everything indicates Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron โ€” faced with record-low domestic support and massive gains by the AfD and the National Rally โ€” are betting on a second von der Leyen term as a way of securing an "anti-populist" ally in Brussels. "We will build a bastion together with others against the extremes of the Left and Right," von der Leyen stated after the elections โ€” something which Scholz and Macron are desperately in need of.

This is arguably why Scholz has said that "there is every indication that Ursula von der Leyen will be able to serve a second term", and why even Macron, who had previously flirted with replacing her with the former Italian prime minister and president of the European Central Bank (ECB) Mario Draghi, would appear to have fallen in line. "I think that things can move quite quickly," he coyly remarked before last night's summit.

It was, if we needed it, a reminder that the EU shouldn't simply be viewed as a supranational authority that infringes upon the autonomy of nation-states (though it is also that, of course), but also as an institution which pro-establishment national authorities can, if needed, deploy against their own "populist" adversaries โ€” and against their own electorates. France is a case in point. As soon as Macron called a snap election in response to Le Pen's crushing victory last week, the "spread" between French and German government borrowing costs immediately rose to the highest level in years. Now, this could be seen as a "natural" reaction of financial markets to the prospect of a "populist" majority coming to power in France โ€” and this is certainly how much of the media is framing it. But this ignores the fact that, ultimately, the spread is determined by the central bank โ€” in the EU's case, the ECB โ€” which always has the power to bring down interest rates by intervening in sovereign bond markets. Markets only have power over states insofar as the central bank refuses to act.

Regrettably, the ECB has a long history of selectively refusing to intervene in support of sovereign bond markets, and engineering financial and fiscal panics. It did this, for example, with Italy's Giorgia Meloni โ€” allowing interest rates to rise as soon as her government came to power, and only intervening to bring them down once the new government pledged to submit to the EU's economic agenda. It would now appear to be pre-emptively applying the same strategy against Le Pen in France.

This does, of course, run contrary to what should be the ECB's principal job: keeping the spread down, or at least mitigating its rise, and thus allowing the democratic process in France to proceed as smoothly as possible. But unfortunately, the ECB isn't a normal central bank; it's a full-blooded political actor that has no qualms with coercing governments to comply with the overall political-economic agenda of the EU. It seems inevitable, for instance, that if Le Pen were to win the next election, the central bank's pressure on France would only increase: expect hysterical takes on France's ballooning fiscal deficit, despite the fact that France has had a higher-than-average deficit for years, though this was never a problem so long as pro-EU governments were in power.

It also goes without saying that this strategy plays perfectly into Macron's hands, who can point to the turbulence in financial markets to paint Le Pen as an economic menace. Le Pen, it seems, is about to learn that dropping her anti-euro agenda might help her get into power, but it won't help her hold onto it, unless she jettisons her economic populism and aligns herself with the establishment on major economic and foreign policy issues.

A variation on the same logic applies to Meloni. Though she hasn't officially endorsed von der Leyen, she's likely to come round in the end for very much the same reason: her political survival depends on having an ally in the European Commission, and on the good will of the ECB, especially with the threat of a new round of crushing austerity measures hanging over Italy's head. Von der Leyen has worked hard behind the scenes trying to lock in Meloni's support, even reportedly going as far as burying an official EU report criticising Italy for eroding media freedoms. As one Commission official told Politico: "There is visibly a willingness to put the brakes on issues related to Italy and the rule of law."

If, as appears likely, von der Leyen succeeds in getting the backing of the European Council, she looks set for a smooth ride in the European Parliament. Von der Leyen's current "super grand coalition" actually increased its seats compared to the past legislature. This means that, even accounting for some rebellious MEPs within those groups' ranks, she appears to be on a clear path to re-election โ€” especially if she can secure the support of the 24 MEPs elected with Meloni's Brothers of Italy party.

And if this does happen, it's hard to imagine a bigger slap in the face to the millions of voters who used the recent ballots to express their opposition to the disastrous consequences of Brussels's agenda: rising living costs, growing socioeconomic precarity, high immigration, creeping deindustrialisation, divisive identity politics and the growing risk of war with Russia. But then again, the EU was never about democracy.

A similar logic is likely to inspire the choice of the president of the European Council. According to the Italian press, one of the names being touted is that of former prime minister Enrico Letta, as mediocre a politician as they come, whose main claim to fame is to have failed miserably in every position he has ever held. As an unflinching pro-EU zealot, however, he would be a perfect sparring partner for von der Leyen, helping her to keep recalcitrant governments in line โ€” especially in view of Hungary's upcoming six-months-long rotating presidency of the European Council, which the EU establishment looks upon in horror.

But as stitch-ups go, will it endure? It was hard not to shake the odour of complacency wafting through Brussels last night. Yes, the only thing less predictable than last week's results was the EU machine's response to them. But even so, looking at the populist sweep across the bloc, one cannot help but wonder: for how much longer can Europe's delegitimised elites continue to override popular discontent with "informal" dinners and horse-trading deals?