BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union’s executive arm blamed a series of technical mistakes after its top official threw her support behind the ruling conservative party in Croatia’s parliamentary elections, in breach of political neutrality guidelines.
Ursula von der Leyen, the German president of the European Commission, appeared with other center-right politicians in a promotional video clip posted over the weekend by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) ahead of Sunday’s vote.
A former defense minister in Germany, Von der Leyen is a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and belongs to the same European People´s Party as HDZ. But the code of conduct for members of the European Commission states that they “shall abstain from making public statements or interventions on behalf of any political party or organization of the social partners of which they are members,” except when they stand for election or participate in a vote.
Speaking during a press conference on Monday, the chief spokesman for the commission, Eric Mamer, said Von der Leyen was meant to be speaking in a personal capacity and repeatedly declined to offer formal apologies for the mixup.
Mamer said she recorded the message at the request of the Croatian Prime minister’s cabinet on Friday during a session held in the commission’s studios before the video was sent to Croatia. He said Von der Leyen recorded several other messages that day as part of her communication strategy during the coronavirus crisis, which requires the use of video for virtual appearances as in-person meetings remain limited.
“Obviously this video should not have been recorded against the backdrop of the Berlaymont,” said Mamer, referring to the office building in Brussels housing the headquarters of the commission, the EU’s executive branch. “When it was recorded they used the same backdrop they had used for the previous video recordings.”
The video triggered an avalanche of criticism on social media. In the short footage, Von der Leyen was identified as the European Commission president and was filmed standing in front of a European flag.
“In the post production phase in Zagreb the heading `president’ was added to the backdrop and that was not of course provided for initially,” Mamer said.
Asked whether Von der Leyen had breached the commission’s code of conduct by meddling in the Croatian election, Mamer said only unintentional mistakes led to the final version of the video.
“Clearly the president is of the view that it’s a good thing for European democracy that members of the college can engage in active political life,” Mamer said. “So that’s the kind of things which must be permitted. At the same time the appropriate conditions must apply to any such activities.”
According to partial results, the ruling conservatives overwhelmingly won the elections held Sunday. With over 90 percent of the vote counted, the HDZ has 66 seats in Croatia´s 151-seat parliament and is likely to form a new coalition government with smaller right-wing groups.