30th Nov 2023


Von der Leyen's moment to step up her game

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, with Belgian PM Alexander De Croo and members of the Belgian government launching the Covid-19 recovery package for the country (Photo: European Commission)
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"The state of the European Union? Could have been much worse," quipped Belgian Green MEP Philip Lamberts at a Strasbourg press briefing on Tuesday (14 September), a day before EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen's speech on the union.

This will be a key message that von der Leyen will capitalise on in her second state-of-the-union speech: with the EU's leadership, Europe managed to vaccinate 70 percent of its adult population, introduced a Covid-19 pass that saved summer - at least for some - and has been rolling out an €800bn recovery fund to help member states' economies to rebound.

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It could have been much worse.

It might seem like von der Leyen has lived up to the EU founding father, Jean Monnet's, dictum that the "EU will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted in those crises". At least on Covid-19. Because the other crises - migration, rule of law, climate crisis - only deepened.

Preparations for von der Leyen's second state-of-the-union speech started long before the summer break in the commission, and with good reason.

"She has to seize the opportunity now to set the course for the remainder of her mandate," said Georg Riekeles from the European Policy Centre, pointing out that Covid-19 hit before the von der Leyen's commission had spent its first 100 days in office.

No mentors

After more than 18 months in crisis-fighting mode, she can politically relaunch her priorities: greening the economy and fighting climate change, championing a digital transformation, and geopolitically place the EU in the global arena.

With Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel half-way out the door, and France entering election mode early next year, von der Leyen will need to show political leadership, even if her priorities are not challenged by the elections in Germany and France.

"With Merkel leaving, von der Leyen is losing a mentor, and she and [European Council president] Charles Michel will need to step up," Riekeles said.

There will be less political capacity to push EU priorities in Berlin and Paris, as Merkel's successor learns the ropes in Brussels, and France shies away from difficult debates during its election campaign.

Riekeles argues in a discussion paper for the European Policy Centre, a think-tank, that Europe's volatile politics is likely to be the biggest challenge for von der Leyen.

"Popular fall-out over migration and foreign policy pressures, rule-of-law challenges, and the transformational politics of climate action and technology are inevitable. But if it were to get out of hand, Europe would be ungovernable. That is why von der Leyen must up her game in Europe's big politics," he wrote.

One way for her to assume a better managerial role would be to delegate more tasks to her politically experienced lieutenants in the college of commissioners, whereas so far she has been seen as overly relying on a close group of advisors.

'Fair costs'

Von der Leyen "personally associated with herself" two promises that she will need to address in her speech, the green deal and building a political commission, argued Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank

"Things are looking pretty rocky on them," she added, pointing out that while EU leaders basically agreed on the green deal, its implementation was being called into question, amid increasing internal concern over rising energy prices.

In her speech, von der Leyen is likely to issue a call to arms while sending a political message that the transition will be just and costs will be fair.

On the geopolitical front, von der Leyen will address the new reality that EU leaders had to wake up to during the messy US pullout from Afghanistan: the need for the EU to be able to defend its own interests, as the US is increasingly turning its attention to Asia and disengaging from Europe.

Dennison expects the German commission chief to call for an EU that is "more robust on different dimensions of sovereignty".

"We might have ambitions for the geopolitical world, but the EU is not there yet," Dennison said, adding that von der Leyen was likely to address the importance of pulling together, and focusing on common interests and threats across the EU.

"We need a clear orientation what we need to do," German MEP Manfred Weber, the group leader for the European People's Party (EPP), the political family von der Leyen belongs to, also told reporters in Strasbourg on Tuesday, calling the Afghanistan withdrawal a "game changer".

"Europe has to take over responsibility," he said, adding that bond Der Leyen's speech should include "hopefully a wake up call".

Conditional dialogue

Von der Leyen has to bridge deep division among EU members when it comes to attitudes towards migration, fiscal policy, or fundamental values.

While her commission has started out trying a new, more conciliatory tone with Poland and Hungary - two countries that have been under EU scrutiny for backsliding on EU values - compared to the commission of her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, it has not yielded results.

Recently, the commission stepped up pressure and used the leverage of the EU recovery fund to put the squeeze on Warsaw and Budapest over long-standing concerns over corruption and judicial independence.

The commission last week also asked the European Court of Justice for daily fines against Warsaw for not respecting earlier court orders.

John Morijn, a law and politics professor at the University of Groningen, said, however, that while the recent efforts of the commission were welcome, "dialogue should be conditional" on Poland and Hungary showing good faith and sincere mutual cooperation in their dealings with EU institutions.

"That would be a powerful message [from von der Leyen]," he said.

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