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13th Apr 2024

Analysis

A second von der Leyen term at EU helm 'not a done deal'

  • The European People's Party will officially nominate Ursula von der Leyen as its lead candidate for the European elections at its European Congress in early March (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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German conservative Ursula von der Leyen is hoping to steer Europe through the next four-year chapter of its story, as she seeks reappointment for European Commission president after the June European elections.

Her announcement at a congress of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in Berlin on Monday (19 February) came as no surprise, but her second term is not a done deal.

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  • As the first female in the job, von der Leyen has also confronted misogyny — such as the famous SofaGate incident (Photo: European Union)

Whether she will stay at the helm of the EU executive until 2029 is mainly a decision of EU leaders, which must be confirmed by a vote in the European Parliament.

Almost five years into her commission post, the EU is facing turbulent times — the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the climate crisis, geopolitical tensions, spiralling inflation and poverty, and a resurgence of far-right populism.

In this context, a second von der Leyen term would bring a sense of stability.

Her leadership has also gained respect, even from socialist-led nations, such as Spain.

But not everyone's support is a given.

Hungarian populist Viktor Orbán will be the first to question her reappointment but Italy, too, poses a question mark, given that prime minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party voted against von der Leyen's nomination in the EU Parliament back in 2019.

"It is certainly not a done deal," an EU official told EUobserver.

"It is a bad sign, that you keep the status quo [when things go wrong]", the EU official said, pointing out that there is not unanimous support for von der Leyen. If there is no unanimity, this means "a weak president" and "a weak commission".

Internal frustrations within the commission and among EU leaders could also hinder her reelection.

"From the outside, she looks strong; on the inside, there is a sense of frustration with her leadership," said Sophia Russack, a researcher from the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank in Brussels.

Russack said previous EU Commission chiefs — Jean-Claude Juncker and Jose Manuel Barroso — had already shown a trend towards presidential-type rule, but "it reached a new dimension" under von der Leyen.

"By being so heavily centralised, she rules over and hence upsets many people inside the institution", Russack said.

'Submissive'

Von der Leyen's self-proclaimed 2019 "geopolitical commission" made her more focused on external relations, going beyond her role as the head of the EU executive — and facing criticism for diminishing the role of EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, leading to clashes between them.

Her good relationship with US president Joe Biden is well known. But some have the impression that she was "submissive" towards the US, the EU official said.

For some leaders, the source said, her "tough" take on China seemed to be pushed by Washington.

However, her handling of the war in Gaza could be her biggest controversy.

In her support for Israel, von der Leyen's initial silence regarding respect for international law was widely-criticised for undermining the credibility of the EU in the Middle East.

It even triggered public disapproval by Borrell, as well as from the leaders of Spain, Belgium, and Ireland.

"The damage [to the EU's credibility] was terrible," the official said.

Von der Leyen's visit to Israel after the 7 October attacks (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

Similarly, von der Leyen's swift and unilateral decision to temporarily withhold the EU Commission's payments to the UN agency in Gaza (UNRWA) based on Israeli terrorism-allegations also drew criticism from EU leaders who felt frustrated by her lack of consultation.

But if nothing else, she has been able to give an answer to the famous question, apocryphally posed by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger: "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?".

"She is Europe's global face," German MEP Daniel Caspary, head of the CDU delegation in the European Parliament, told EUobserver.

Successes and scandals

Von der Leyen's first term has not been associated with major advances related to the internal market, the capital and banking union, or EU treaty reforms, but her geopolitical profile is seen as an added value for the next commission.

In the face of the potential reelection of Donald Trump in the US in November and with the war in Ukraine likely to continue indefinitely, "having an experienced hand at the helm of the commission who has proven her worth in pushing the EU security and defence union forward would be no bad thing," Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official, told EUobserver.

"She may not be a charismatic communicator of the European project … But her record as commission president is certainly more impressive than her immediate predecessors," he added.

The list of her biggest successes includes: the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, the Green Deal, raising €800bn in fresh borrowing for the recovery post-pandemic, and the EU's response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Von der Leyen and Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky in Davos this year (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

But she has also blotted her copybook.

While the EU helped create an effective vaccination campaign in Europe, it garbaged millions of expired jabs — after failing to share them with poorer nations, undermining relations with the African Union.

During the pandemic, she secretly negotiated the purchase of over 1.8bn doses through calls and SMS-es with Pfizer's CEO.

But when asked to show how the talks went for the sake of transparency, her SMS texts magically vanished.

The Green Deal, which was one of her flagship policies back in 2019, has seen several broken promises, including on cutting pesticides, updating chemical legislation, and reducing agricultural emissions.

And many wonder if these pending proposals would make it to the next commission work programme if she stays on top.

Meanwhile, other pledges fell through completely.

This list includes the Mercosur trade agreement, the report on the Inflation Reduction Act, and her promise to listen to EU citizens on treaty changes — to name just a few.

As the chief of the EU executive, von der Leyen is one of Europe's most influential women.

But as the first female in the job, she has also confronted misogyny.

In the famous SofaGate incident, she was denied equal treatment alongside a top male EU official during a visit to Turkey.

But this gave her an opportunity, which she seized, to highlight the struggles of women and show her commitment to gender equality.

Later in 2022, she had to deal with Ugandan foreign minister general Jeje Odongo casually ignoring her, to only shake hands with men as he passed by.

From medicine to politics

Meanwhile, her journey from medicine to politics was not a direct path.

Born on 8 October 1958 in Brussels, von der Leyen was raised in a Christian family and a privileged environment as the daughter of Ernst Albrecht, a former European civil servant and prime minister of the Lower Saxony region in Germany.

In Brussels, where she spent her first 13 years, she studied in the elite multilingual European School for the children of diplomats and EU functionaries, where she learned French and English.

Later, she studied economics in Germany and at the London School of Economics — where she apparently adopted the name of Rose Ladson to protect herself from the then-active Red Army Faction German terrorist group.

Before moving into politics, she also studied medicine, earned a degree in gynaecology, and married German businessman Heiko von der Leyen in the late 1980s.

After living some years in California, she returned to Germany and joined the CDU in 1996.

Within a decade, she went from various jobs in local politics in the region of Hanover to one of one of Germany's most important federal ministries.

After the CDU won the federal elections in 2005, von der Leyen became a minister under then German chancellor Angela Merkel's government.

From 2005 to 2009, she served as minister of family affairs, introducing policies such as paternity and maternity leave to support families.

She later became the minister of labour and social affairs, before assuming the role of defence minister in 2013 — becoming the first woman to hold the position.

As minister of family affairs and herself a mother of seven children, she faced backlash over her internet censorship-attempt targeting child pornography ("Zugangserschwerungsgesetz" in German) and was dubbed 'Zensursula"' (a combination of the German word "Zensur" for "censorship" and her name Ursula) by critics.

Another nickname was Krippen-Ursel ("crèche Ursula") for her advocacy to expand nursery places.

Von der Leyen attending an event in Brussels as German minister for family affairs (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

Workaholic

Contrary to her predecessors, von der Leyen decided to live right by her office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont — showing that she's a real workaholic.

But despite her busy schedule, she travels from time to time to her rural house in Beinhorn, near Hanover in Germany, where she has several horses, goats, and chickens.

"Von der Leyen has been an effective leader of the commission particularly when we think of the low expectations surrounding her appointment five years ago," Shea said.

Following the last 2019 European elections, EU leaders brought the 65-year old centre-right politician in from Merkel's defence ministry using their treaty powers after the failure of the Spitzenkandidaten process — in which the EU Parliament's political families put forward lead nominees for the commission job and the family that does best in the EU elections is meant to take the prize.

But this gave the impression that she was forced upon MEPs, even within her own European People's Party (EPP).

The German politician secured approval by a tiny margin, with 383 votes in favour (and 374 votes required).

It now remains to be seen how well the centre-right does in the EU elections in June and if that margin still remains.

"Yet to secure the job she might be asked to undo her major achievements, from delaying climate action to suspending the enlargement and reform of the union," Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris told EUobserver.

"This is a dangerous game for the Union's resilience and credibility and recipe for self-destruction."

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