Sunday

15th Dec 2019

Von der Leyen signals soft touch on migrants, rule of law

Countries who rejected non-European migrants or raised concern on rule of law, such as Poland, could expect more sympathy from the European Commission, its new president, Ursula von der Leyen, has indicated.

Italy could also expect flexibility on budgets and the UK on its exit date, she said in an interview with five European newspapers on Friday (19 July).

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But Russia ought to stay under EU sanctions and Turkey was drifting away from Europe, she added.

"The migration issue will be with us for decades," von der Leyen told the five media, and EU countries such as Poland or Hungary, who have rebelled against migrant-sharing quotas with Greece and Italy, ought to be "listened to", she said.

"I put the case of Poland, with its argument that they have already welcomed 1.5m Ukrainians. Ukraine is a country with a hybrid war, for years, in which people are still dying. We cannot ignore it," she explained.

The EU "must reform Dublin", she said, referring to European asylum laws, which oblige the first member state where an asylum seeker lands to take care of them.

But von der Leyen added, in a wink to Warsaw and Budapest, that "fair burden-sharing" could mean "perhaps each country in a differentiated aspect".

Poland and Hungary are also under an EU sanctions procedure for abuse of rule of law at home.

But von der Leyen said "nobody's perfect" and promised to take the heat out of the political clash.

"In central and eastern European countries, many feel that they're not fully accepted, and if we guide debates as sharply as we have done, it contributes to countries and peoples believing that they are being targeted as a whole," the German politician said.

"We must all learn that full rule of law is always our goal, but nobody's perfect," she added.

A new commission proposal, to do yearly rule of law reports on all 28 EU states, would "avoid giving the impression that part of Europe fundamentally regards the other critically," she said.

Von der Leyen was narrowly voted in by the European Parliament earlier this week, amid crucial support from MEPs in Poland's ruling Law and Justice party.

But she skirted a question on what that meant for her mandate.

The centre-right, liberals, and most of the centre-left also voted her, she said, adding: "What's decisive for me is to have rallied a majority on the basis of a clearly pro-European speech and programme".

Italy and Brexit

The incoming commission president also signalled a soft touch on EU fiscal limits in Italy, where two populist parties in power boosted welfare spending.

"Again, we have to take out the sharp emotions," von der Leyen said.

"The stability and growth pact [EU fiscal limits] must be respected, but there is also a lot of flexibility in the framework that can be better exploited," she added.

Britain could extend its 31 October Brexit deadline if it needed to gain a happy outcome, she said.

"We must do everything possible to have an orderly Brexit. If there were good reasons for a postponement, I am open to listening to them," von der Leyen told the European newspapers.

But she took a more hawkish line on foreign policy, saying Russia ought to stay under EU sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine and that Turkey was moving "in the opposite direction" from Europe.

Russia

"Russia is our neighbour and will remain so. But the Kremlin does not forgive any weakness. That is the experience of the last years," she said.

Asked if it made sense to go on with Turkey's accession talks despite its anti-EU turn under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, von der Leyen said EU negotiations were meant to make candidates "modernise and adapt to the EU, not the other way around".

"At this moment I do not see any fact in Turkey that goes in this direction. The accession process is paralysed because Turkey is going in the opposite direction", she said.

Von der Leyen spoke in Berlin to a consortium of European newspapers, including La Vanguardia from Spain, La Stampa (Italy), Le Monde (France), Sueddeutsche Zeitung (Germany), and The Guardian (UK).

She was even more hawkish on Russia in a separate interview with German newspaper Die Welt also on Friday.

"From a position of strength, we should stick to the Russia sanctions," she said, in words that would also be music to Warsaw's ears.

And she told German newspaper Bild that Germany's plan to build a new gas pipeline to Russia, called Nord Stream 2, which Poland has opposed, created a "danger of over-dependence on Russian energy".

PiS & Fidesz claim credit for von der Leyen victory

Warsaw and Budapest are boasting about their support for von der Leyen after the german is confirmed only by a small margin of MEPs, but the illiberals should not expect the softening of rule of law scrutiny.

Analysis

Von der Leyen faces gender battle for commission posts

The first-ever female president of the European Commission wants half of her team of commissioners to consist of women. But most of the commissioners put forward by EU member states so far have been male.

Analysis

What did we learn from the von der Leyen vote?

The vote on von der Leyen showed the fundamental change in EU politics. The rise of the European Parliament, the power of political parties, and the fragmentation of politics, are new realities to be taken into account.

Von der Leyen aims to 'rebalance Europe'

The German EU Commission president-elect hopes to bridge divisions within the EU, as she meets with EU leaders setting up her team of commissioners.

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